Detective Yarn With a Twist: Tick-Plagued P.I. Sleuths Self

Motherless Brooklyn , by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 311 pages, $23.95.

It’s too late to discover Jonathan Lethem, just as he’s publishing his sixth book, five years after his debut, but it’s the right moment to meet him. His latest novel, Motherless Brooklyn , is a pure delight, and the tiny band of enthusiasts who have cherished from the first his oddity and his snappy, smart prose are about to suffer the mixed blessing of having their unsung hero go public. In the blink between obscurity and ubiquity, shake hands with a happening novelist.

To meet him on his home turf, you must cross to Brooklyn, to Boerum Hill, where he grew up and lives now (he went away for a while in between). On Tuesday nights the 35-year-old writer used to hold court at the Brooklyn Inn, but lately, as he told me when I asked him about it, “The bar’s gotten too popular.” He added, with a native’s proud and prickly ambivalence, “The whole neighborhood is in rapid, rapid gentrification.” (Authors like gentrification when it means book sales: You can hear Mr. Lethem read at Barnes & Noble on Friday, Oct. 22–in Park Slope.)

The other place to meet him is where reader and writer mix as equals, on the neutral ground of the printed page. In his earlier books (there are four other novels and a collection of short stories) he often spliced science fiction with the detective novel–like Blade Runner , only less portentous. You get the feeling, reading early Lethem, that he’s impatient with run-of-the-mill reality; he wants to juice it up, to shock the quotidian and make it jump a little.

In Motherless Brooklyn , Mr. Lethem has suppressed his subversive urge: There are no surrealist episodes in these pages, no glimpse of a parallel universe or post-apocalyptic future; the realism here is magic, but only because the writing is quietly enchanting–as, for example, when our narrator gazes into his teacup: “I was distracted by the tea leaves in my cup settling gradually into a mound at the bottom, like astronauts on a planet with barely any gravity.” Or when he ponders a late-night Brooklyn streetscape: “A minute later the 67 bus rolled like a great battered appliance down Bergen, empty apart from the driver.” Conventional similes, unpretentious, safe, charming.

Mr. Lethem does his best in the new novel to banish fantasy and box up the bizarre, but the repressed elements burst out anyway, loud and very in-your-face: Lionel Essrog, the narrator of Motherless Brooklyn , has Tourette’s syndrome. His uncontrollable tics are eruptions of misrule, twitches and jerks and shouted expletives that tilt “the reality-knitting mechanism” of ordinary life. Whenever Lionel lets loose with one of his garbled shouts, he is subverting language. He scrambles the code; he rearranges the building blocks of reality. Here’s what his “echo-chamber skull” does with his own name: “Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pisscalm.” His friends call him Freakshow.

An orphan raised in Brooklyn, at St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, Lionel was rescued from the home, along with three other orphans, by Frank Minna, a wise-cracking petty mobster, a pure product of “the old Brooklyn” (pre-gentrification, that is). At first, Minna uses the boys for manual labor (he runs a dubious “moving company”); later, he operates a car service, with the boys as drivers, a front for what he pretends is a detective agency. With his head full of Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, Minna half believes he is truly a private eye, backed up by his four “Minna Men,” and Lionel believes it wholeheartedly. But the reader recognizes Minna as a small-time hood running small-time scams.

Minna is dead by page 35–mysteriously murdered almost exactly under Lionel’s nose, and this world-shattering event, ironically, thrusts our Tourettic narrator into a detective’s role. The conventions of the genre (and Lionel’s fragile sense of self) demand that he find his mentor’s killer and avenge his death.

But Lionel is a freakshow, and incapable of conventional sleuthing. His attempts at private investigation amount willy-nilly to a comic deconstruction of the genre. Picture Bogart as Sam Spade: His lips may twitch a bit when he grimaces, but he never jerks his head halfway around; he never barks; he never feels the urge to tap a homicide detective six times on the shoulder or to yell, when asked by the same detective whether he’s a friend of the deceased, ” Trend the decreased! Mend the retreats! ”

The flawless hard-boiled style of the big-city gumshoe is irremediably wrecked by Lionel’s tics. The result is a delicious paradox: Motherless Brooklyn is at once much more real than a detective novel (Lionel’s symptoms, even at their most alarming, are thoroughly convincing) and much stranger. Much funnier, too. The plot noodles along, as improbably convoluted as anything devised by Dashiell Hammett. Minna’s sexy widow flies the coop; a Zen master makes an enigmatic entrance; a giant Polish hit man stalks the Minna Men; a sinister Japanese corporation menaces by remote control–yet all that seems incidental to the business of watching Lionel cope. Like a demented Dada chorus, his syndrome pipes in absurdist poetry: “[W]hen a television pitchman said to last the rest of a lifetime my brain went to rest the lust of a loaftomb .” “Alfred Hitchcock” becomes “Altered Houseclock” or “Ilford Hotchkiss”; “1030 Park Avenue” becomes “energy pocket angle,” which becomes “rectangle sauce.”

Nonsense is a nuisance, said Gertrude Stein (I think), meaning also, and more urgently, that nonsense is a new sense. Lionel’s echolalia hinders his investigation; also, and more importantly, it reminds us of who Lionel isn’t. An orphan’s identity is always wobbly, Lionel’s more so because he grew up worshipping a man who was not what he pretended to be. Now that Minna is dead, Lionel must forge, on his own, a viable sense of self. He must make a place for himself in mentorless Brooklyn.

“New York is a Tourettic city,” Lionel muses, his attention fixed on the lines of people at corner stores waiting to buy Lotto and Scratchers and Jumble 6 and Pickball–”this great communal scratching and counting and tearing is a definite symptom.” He rides the subway and sees “the tunnel walls … layered, like those of my brain, with expulsive and incoherent language.” He may not know who Lionel Essrog is, but at least he knows he’s in the right place. Even gentrified, Brooklyn can accommodate a man who has learned to turn his tics into vaudeville, say–or compelling comic fiction.

Mr. Lethem told me, “I wanted to write a book that put manic language front and center.” Motherless Brooklyn does just that. Detective Yarn With a Twist: Tick-Plagued P.I. Sleuths Self