Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn

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Motherless Brooklyn Summary

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Motherless Brooklyn is a detective novel by Jonathan Lethem featuring detective Lionel Essrog, who also narrates the story. The book takes place in Brooklyn around the year 1999. Essrog’s mentor, Frank Minna, is found stabbed in the street. Taking it upon himself to investigate the murder, Essrog is joined by the Minna Men, a ragtag gang of boys Frank Minna adopted from an orphanage and taught the ways of the streets. Essrog fights both with and against the Minna Men over the course of the novel, in an attempt to avenge the death of his boss and close friend.

The novel begins with a comical car chase. Essrog and his fellow Minna Man Gilbert Coney have been asked by Frank Minna to do a stakeout on a Zen meditation center in the city. Nothing appears to be happening of note at the meditation center. Minna didn’t tell Essrog and Coney what to watch for – he just told them to be there, and they went. Suddenly, Minna appears, and as quickly as he arrived, he is kidnapped and whisked away by an unknown assailant in a car. Coney and Essrog quickly hop in a car to follow them, but both cars are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The chase is hilariously slow-paced as they inch their way down the streets of New York. The kidnapper gets ahead of Coney and Essrog when he drives through a tollbooth—he has a frequent commuter pass, leaving Essrog stranded at the booth, waiting in line. Finally, the men track down Minna, but by then, he has been stabbed several times and is near death. Essrog and Coney demand to know who kidnapped and stabbed him, but Minna refuses to tell them. Soon afterward, he dies.

Without Minna to guide them, the Minna Men become increasingly lost. The gang includes Essrog, Coney, Tony Vermonte, and Danny Fantl, all of whom Minna hired to work odd jobs for what he referred to as his “moving company.” Minna found the boys at the St. Vincent’s Home for Boys. Their status as orphans bound them to Minna as a father figure—someone they could look to for guidance. Minna, a mobster, owned a car company that was a front for a detective service. He trained the boys to do odd jobs, stakeouts, wiretapping, and other important detective work for his list of shady clients; the boys admired Minna’s ability to find a place for himself in the hard-knock world of Brooklyn. Minna taught the boys the essential rules of private detective work: do what your client asks, don’t ask too many questions, and never speak your client’s name aloud. For years, Essrog and his buddies had kept the names of the notorious gangsters Matricardi and Rockefort a secret, according to Minna’s wishes.

Essrog takes it upon himself to track down Minna’s killer, with or without the other Minna Men, who are suspicious of each other and unsure what to do without their leader giving them concrete instruction. For two days, the novel follows Essrog on his investigation into Minna’s death – Essrog returns to the meditation center, disrupting the tranquil space, spies on the other Minna Men and their car company, negotiates with Minna’s favorite gangsters, and drives north to Maine to find Minna’s bitter and aggressive Mafia wife Julia whom the boys had never met.

Eventually, Essrog pieces together the events leading to Minna’s death, though not without digging through years of Minna’s history. At a pivotal moment in the story, Essrog comes to terms with his own neurological condition – he discovers he has Tourette’s syndrome, which has caused his life-long verbal and physical tics that have made him an outcast among everyone he met. Lethem uses Essrog’s verbal tics to give the reader insight into the workings of his mind, and for wordplay – the tics often come in high-intensity situations, diving deep into Essrog’s subconscious mind. Essrog also investigates his own personal ghost, a character named Bailey. Essrog is unsure where Bailey came from, but when he has his verbal tics, he often addresses them to this ghost character, gesturing wildly as he does so.

Overall, the novel delivers a detective story with unconventional and humorous twists, following a particularly atypical narrator through his experience uncovering the history of the only father-figure he’s ever known.

Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999 and the 2000 Gold Dagger Award for crime fiction. A film adaptation of the book began in February 2018 and will feature Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Alec Baldwin, among other actors. Jonathan Lethem is an American author who mixes elements of both detective and science fiction genres in his work. He has written eleven novels and five collections of short stories, and published dozens of other short works in various magazines. He has also written more than a dozen works of non-fiction on a variety of topics. A best-selling author, he has received a MacArthur Fellowship.