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A De-tec-tic Tale – Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

I am not a fan of detective novels. I am not a fan of a lot of things, if you have noticed through the constant reading of what I write. But I did like watching that Japanese cartoon detective series aired a few years ago on local TV. Detective Conan, yes, that mysteriously shrunken cute boy genius who could solve any crime presented to him thanks to the innumerable convolutions of his brains.

And do detective stories always feature a super intelligent detective? No, I suppose. It’s my first time to read a book explicitly described as a detective tale, so I was expecting the protagonist to have some qualities of the detective cliché: trench coat and fedora, an air of mystery, grave and somber personality, vast knowledge on everything, and a weapon hidden beneath the clothes.

But what we have here is a human freakshow. That’s what our detective Lionel Essrog is called. He is our protagonist, and instead of inheriting at least one quality from any detective, he instead is afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome.

And what is that?

Is guilt a species of Tourette’s? Maybe. It has a touchy quality, I think, a hint of sweaty fingers. Guilt wants to cover all the bases, be everywhere at once, reach into the past to tweak, neaten, and repair. Guilt like Tourettic utterance flows uselessly, inelegantly from one helpless human to another, contemptuous of perimeters, doomed to be mistaken or refused on delivery.

Guilt, like Tourette’s, tries again, learns nothing.

And the guilty soul, like the Tourettic, wears a kind of clown face–the Smokey Robinson kind, with tear tracks underneath.

Simply put, Tourette’s is a set of compulsive behaviors that includes obsessing with repeating tasks and gestures (tapping people’s shoulders), obsessing with counting objects and actions (tapping people’s shoulders four times), and obsessing with wordplay (tapping people, tack it simple). So yes, a Tourettic is an unbeatable wordsmith. He can hammer the phrase “happy together” to “crappy however” and “slappy forget her.” Take note that such a wordplay uncontrollably comes off as a tic, and since the novel is told in the point of view of Essrog, this makes the narrative wild and witty.

Anyway, the novel is set in Brooklyn. Lionel Essrog (Unreliable Chessgrub!), an orphan, was brought under the care of Frank Minna along with three other boys from the same orphanage. The four boys were first hired to do various chores that teenagers can perform, such as carrying crates from a truck to a warehouse, since Frank Minna is running a moving business. This evolved into a car service. Then it became a detective agency, which is not really a detective agency but something else under the guise of a car service.

One afternoon, Frank Minna is murdered. The four boys, being quasi, pseudo detectives, set out to find out what happened. So there’s the, I think, usual clue-finding, suspects, badass men, giant men, old men, conspiracies, generalizations, realizations, and voilà! Case solved.

I think that this is more a psychological case study than a mere crime-detective novel. It is very interesting to see Lionel deal with his Tourette’s while attempting to solve a murder mystery. During his investigations and interrogations, he would tic like crazy, usually favoring “eatmeBailey!” among his set of tic words. Who this Bailey is, we don’t know. If he is someone from Lionel’s murky past, we are never told. Or it could be that Bailey is just a fictional friend as Tourette’s is his Siamese twin.

5 star - it was amazingIt is this Tourette’s thing that made me so immersed in my reading of this novel. Lionel’s babbling could make the reader literally laugh out loud. But it is just not a laughing matter. Lionel’s Tourette’s is also a metaphor for a lot of things. The genre of the novel where Lionel moves is very much like his Tourette’s: a struggle to cast off the internal turbulence roiling underneath. It can be also that it is a microcosm of society’s attempt to deal with helplessness and its compulsion to perform its antics.

The last chapter of the novel may have playfully skirted around too much sentimentality, but that doesn’t make Lionel less of a memorable narrator. After finishing this, I felt that the novel is underrated, that it should be given more than what it’s credited for, regardless of notions of gimmick.

And let me tell you something. While I was reading this novel, I felt like laughing at myself because I see some of Lionel’s behavior in my mind’s eye being perfectly acted by myself. Maybe I am mildly Tourettic? And so what? I know one bookish friend who’s singing “All the Pretty Horses” to the tune of “Single Ladies.”


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