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  • Written by Jonathan Lethem
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A Novel

Written by Jonathan LethemAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jonathan Lethem


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: April 20, 2011
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-78912-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel.

Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways.  Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head.  Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.


Walks Into

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I'd have to be Mumbles.) In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They're an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only--here's the rub--when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark.

"Eat me!" I scream.

* * *

"Maufishful," said Gilbert Coney in response to my outburst, not even turning his head. I could barely make out the words--"My mouth is full"--both truthful and a joke, lame. Accustomed to my verbal ticcing, he didn't usually bother to comment. Now he nudged the bag of White Castles in my direction on the car seat, crinkling the paper. "Stuffinyahole."

Coney didn't rate any special consideration from me. "Eatmeeatmeeatme," I shrieked again, letting off more of the pressure in my head. Then I was able to concentrate. I helped myself to one of the tiny burgers. Unwrapping it, I lifted the top of the bun to examine the grid of holes in the patty, the slime of glistening cubed onions. This was another compulsion. I always had to look inside a White Castle, to appreciate the contrast of machine-tooled burger and nubbin of fried goo. kaos and control. Then I did more or less as Gilbert had suggested--pushed it into my mouth whole. The ancient slogan Buy 'em by the sack humming deep in my head, jaw working to grind the slider into swallowable chunks, I turned back to stare out the window at the house.

Food really mellows me out.

We were putting a stakeout on 109 East Eighty-fourth Street, a lone town house pinned between giant doorman apartment buildings, in and out of the foyers of which bicycle deliverymen with bags of hot Chinese flitted like tired moths in the fading November light. It was dinner hour in Yorktown. Gilbert Coney and I had done our part to join the feast, detouring up into Spanish Harlem for the burgers. There's only one White Castle left in Manhattan, on East 103rd. It's not as good as some of the suburban outlets. You can't watch them prepare your order anymore, and to tell the truth I've begun to wonder if they're microwaving the buns instead of steaming them. Alas. Taking our boodle of thusly compromised sliders and fries back downtown, we double-parked in front of the target address until a spot opened up. It only took a couple of minutes, though by that time the doormen on either side had made us--made us as out-of-place and nosy anyway. We were driving the Lincoln, which didn't have the "T"-series license plates or stickers or anything else to identify it as a Car Service vehicle. And we were large men, me and Gilbert. They probably thought we were cops. It didn't matter. We chowed and watched.

Not that we knew what we were doing there. Minna had sent us without saying why, which was usual enough, even if the address wasn't. Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed game board of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers--like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)--to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East Side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland--or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard.

"What's that sign?" said Coney. He pointed with his glistening chin at the town house doorway. I looked.

" 'Yorkville Zendo,' " I read off the bronze plaque on the door, and my fevered brain processed the words and settled with interest on the odd one. "Eat me Zendo!" I muttered through clenched teeth.

Gilbert took it, rightly, as my way of puzzling over the unfamiliarity. "Yeah, what's that Zendo? What's that?"

"Maybe like Zen," I said.

"I don't know from that."

"Zen like Buddhism," I said. "Zen master, you know."

"Zen master?"

"You know, like kung-fu master."

"Hrrph," said Coney.

And so after this brief turn at investigation we settled back into our complacent chewing. Of course after any talk my brain was busy with at least some low-level version of echolalia salad: Don't know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me! But it didn't require voicing, not now, not with White Castles to unscrew, inspect and devour. I was on my third. I fit it into my mouth, then glanced up at the doorway of One-oh-nine, jerking my head as if the building had been sneaking up on me. Coney and the other Minna Agency operatives loved doing stakeouts with me, since my compulsiveness forced me to eyeball the site or mark in question every thirty seconds or so, thereby saving them the trouble of swiveling their necks. A similar logic explained my popularity at wiretap parties--give me a key list of trigger words to listen for in a conversation and I'd think about nothing else, nearly jumping out of my clothes at hearing the slightest hint of one, while the same task invariably drew anyone else toward blissful sleep.

While I chewed on number three and monitored the uneventful Yorkville Zendo entrance my hands busily frisked the paper sack of Castles, counting to be sure I had three remaining. We'd purchased a bag of twelve, and not only did Coney know I had to have my six, he also knew he was pleasing me, tickling my Touretter's obsessive-compulsive instincts, by matching my number with his own. Gilbert Coney was a big lug with a heart of gold, I guess. Or maybe he was just trainable. My tics and obsessions kept the other Minna Men amused, but also wore them out, made them weirdly compliant and complicit.

A woman turned from the sidewalk onto the stoop of the town house and went up to the door. Short dark hair, squarish glasses, that was all I saw before her back was to us. She wore a pea coat. Sworls of black hair at her neck, under the boyish haircut. Twenty-five maybe, or maybe eighteen.

"She's going in," said Coney.

"Look, she's got a key," I said.

"What's Frank want us to do?"

"Just watch. Take a note. What time is it?"

Coney crumpled another Castle wrapper and pointed at the glove compartment. "You take a note. It's six forty-five."

I popped the compartment--the click-release of the plastic latch was a delicious hollow sound, which I knew I'd want to repeat, at least approximately--and found the small notebook inside. GIRL, I wrote, then crossed it out. WOMAN, HAIR, GLASSES, KEY. 6:45. The notes were to myself, since I only had to be able to report verbally to Minna. If that. For all we knew, he might want us out here to scare someone, or to wait for some delivery. I left the notebook beside the Castles on the seat between us and slapped the compartment door shut again, then delivered six redundant slaps to the same spot to ventilate my brain's pressure by reproducing the hollow thump I'd liked. Six was a lucky number tonight, six burgers, six forty-five. So six slaps.

* * *

For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain--same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back.

Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer.
Jonathan Lethem|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem - Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem is the author of nine novels, including most recently Dissident Gardens. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Lethem has published his stories and essays in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among others. He lives in California.

Author Q&A

Q: Where did you get the idea to write Motherless Brooklyn? What inspired you to write a novel from the point of view of a narrator who has Tourette's Syndrome?

A: I became fascinated with Tourette's by reading about it in Oliver Sacks' essays--and after seeing a wonderful documentary film called Twitch and Shout, which intimately portrays the daily lives of a handful of very articulate and expressive Tourette's sufferers. I began--involuntarily--to relate the symptoms of Tourette's to aspects of my own temperament and personality: obsessiveness, disruptiveness, the struggle to shape and control language (a very writerly issue!). Tourette's became vital to my own experience of the world, both inner and outer, an irresistible metaphor for things I felt, and I knew I had to try to get that feeling across to other people. That was the beginning.

Q: What response has there been from the Tourette's community to the character of Lionel Essrog?

A: I've been lucky. Obviously, there are times in the book when I'm having dangerous amount of fun with Lionel and his condition. My research was careful, but I didn't restrict myself to what I learned, didn't turn in my poetic license. But, perhaps because I also identified with him so strongly, and therefore take the reader with me into his skin, the Tourette's community has been very kind. They've read the book generously, written me letters, showed up at readings, and generally flattered me by suggesting I got Tourette's right, emotionally if not strictly scientifically.

Q: The city of Brooklyn plays a major role in this novel. Of all the places in the world you could set this story, why Brooklyn?

A: I'm from Brooklyn. That's the short answer. This book became an opportunity to breaking through to writing about my home turf for the first time--somehow, through Lionel's eyes, I was able to see it "fictionally", and the result was a book that was much more about place, and about home, as subjects, than any I'd written before. And Brooklyn has a Tourettic, impulsive, interruptive, agitated energy to it which rhymed beautifully with Lionel's perceptions and style, and with the twitchy, antic energy of the book. It couldn't have been set anywhere else.

Q: Motherless Brooklyn has been described as, among other things, an "homage to the classic detective novel." As a novelist who also writes a lot of literary criticism how would you define your novel? And how would you review it?

A: Yikes, that sounds like an opportunity to put my foot in my mouth. And of course, I spend an awful lot of time working to make sure that my novels are "impossible" to categorize or pigeonhole. I'm fond of leading with one genre notion and then following with another, contradictory one. But--I would agree, of course, that in a perverse and playful way the book is an homage to detective fiction, yes. Lionel himself is desperate to be regarded as a Philip Marlowe-type detective, and in that he betrays my own reverence for the form. But I think the book is as much a comic coming-of-age story, a novel of delayed adolescence (Lionel's in his thirties for most of it!) somewhat in the tradition of Catcher In The Rye, or Confederacy of Dunces. And it's a love story. And a psychological novel. And...

Q: Do you ever wonder what writers like Chandler and Hammett would think of your novels, especially Motherless Brooklyn?

A: That's an interesting question. In my mind a book like Motherless Brooklyn has so much to do with Chandler and Hammett, and yet I doubt they would see very much of themselves or their work in it. Of course, they'd probably spend most of the time trying to puzzle over the references to I Dream Of Genie and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. And the cellphones. But seriously, both of those writers were so powerfully engaged with issues of violence and civility and class in the new American cities--they were really excavating material that had been treated only contemptuously, in pulp terms, and making something literary out of it. In the process they--particularly Hammett--defined a new kind of American voice which is now so taken for granted that it can be parodied in Steve Martin movies, and so on. My own hard-boiled (or, really, soft-boiled) books take those innovations very much for granted. If I've discovered anything new at all in Motherless Brooklyn it isn't in the realm of Hammett and Chandler. What I owe to them is very, very traditional by now, and I dare say I haven't advanced it an inch.

General Questions:

Q: What authors have been most influential to your own writing?

A: There are so many, and the most relevant to mention change from book to book. For instance, Girl In Landscape is derived from Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Davis Grubb, and Charles Portis. As She Climbed Across the Table from Don Delillo, Stanislaw Lem, John Barth and Malcolm Bradbury. In fact, The Vintage Book of Amnesia includes many names which are among my most absolutely formative and influential early reading experiences: Philip K. Dick, Borges, Nabokov, Walker Percy, Thomas Disch, Donald Barthelme, Julio Cortazar. Those are some who shaped my sense of all the amazing things fiction could do and say... but equally, I'd count Graham Greene, Henry Miller, Robert Heinlein, Chandler and Hammett, of course... Iris Murdoch, Franz Kafka, Dickens, Gissing, Bronte... when should I stop?

Q: If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living?

A: Easy. I'd go back to what I did before I made a living from writing, the only other thing I know how to do: working as a clerk in a used bookstore. Pining over books, touching them, taking them home instead of half my paycheck.

Q: What is the most difficult question that your readers ask you?

A: "My name is Czrllyzzk Mxzztpyl, will you please inscribe this book?"

Q: More and more, authors are expected to tour to promote the publication of their books? What is the most challenging aspect of hitting the road?

A: You'd have to be a real misanthrope--and a self-loathing one, at that--to complain much about having people show up to listen to you read your work aloud in public and then ask you basically flattering questions about how you spend your mornings padding around in your house every day, writing down your fantasies for which they will soon eagerly pay 24.95 and then show up and listen to you read aloud in public... people talk about 'trying to stay humble' and I wonder why you'd even need to try. I lived a blessed life. What gets me down sometimes is sheer exhaustion, and the logistics, and the air travel. The dumb stuff that fills in the spaces between the gratifying attention. I've seen my share of cancelled flights and hotel lobbies, just like Willie Nelson or the Kinks. And, just between you and me, talking into radio talk show microphones is sometimes draining--you feel like your words are falling into the void between the galaxies. Often in radio the guy who asked you the question is outside the booth smoking a cigarette while you answer it. But if there's a real living, breathing person in a bookstore looking at you, waiting to hear what you think, then it's a pleasure. Unless you're painfully shy--and I'm not--meeting readers is as potentially nourishing (and therefore, I should say, as potentially disappointing) as any other form of human contact.

Author Q&A

On the Road with the Author
With characteristic wit and charm, Jonathan Lethem shared his thoughts and experiences in a series of diary entries written during his tour for Motherless Brooklyn.

St. Louis and Kansas City (October 30-31, 2000):

I'm in the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago, sitting on my king-size bed, watching Judge Judy on television. John Lydon of Public Image is defending himself against a wrongful termination lawsuit by a drummer from a recent tour. The Singer Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten is making lots of rude asides and getting a lot of scowly looks and warning fingers from Judge Judy, but the judge seems to be leaning towards throwing out the drummer's suit.

My spaghetti with marinara is on the way up. Room Service in Chicago features the same menu--Maryland Crabcakes, Washington Lamb Chops Provencale, and Chilled Jumbo Pacific Shrimp--as those I've just sampled in Kansas City and St. Louis. The food-names seem a deliberate affront to geographic logic, or am I getting oversensitive? Three airports, three hotels, three cities in three days, and I've quickly been thrust back into that Cuisinart reality where my days resemble the cable television I watch each night to decompress and put myself to sleep, channels flipped until the boundaries blur, until Judge Judy and John Lydon begin to seem reasonable companions.

Maybe I'm going crazy, but I appear to be on booktour again. Yes, that's it for sure. Tonight I'll be at Barbara's Bookstore in Chicago, where like a Jumbo Pacific Shrimp I'll be popped out of my generic shell of lodging comfort and travel discomfort, my bubble of Simpsons reruns and Cinnabuns, into the agreeably humble and sweet lap of local reality. Me and a bunch of booksellers and readers will resume our nightly love affair, which is delicate, and improvised, sometimes clumsy and always hugely real. It's also never the same twice. That's what's so remarkable about booktouring: the rapid, almost strobe-like alternation between an infinity of repetitions and the impossibly unrepeatable.

Monday, in Saint Louis, for instance. The evening at Left Bank Books begins with a reading group presentation in the basement, which has been generously expanded from its usual base to include five or six members of a local Tourette's Syndrome Association chapter--mostly parents of newly-diagnosed children, who, in my recent experiences as a sheepish recruit into Tourette's advocacy, are the driving force of the movement, fierce and attentive as you'd expect parents to be. They also wish I'd written a book they could comfortably give to young children, but are too polite to say so. Also in attendance is a local librarian who distributes his own stunningly erudite ten-page Reader's Guide to Motherless Brooklyn with subject headings including "How is Lionel's Sex Life?" "Does Frank Minna have anything to do with Jesus Christ?" and "Are words tools or toys?" and a Further Reading list which mentions Elizabeth McCracken and Jimmy Breslin.

Then, upstairs, among the readers who wait in line for a signed book is a woman who says me she saw me two weeks ago at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where I introduced readings by Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje. "Oh, you happened to be in town, that's nice," I say, but she corrects me--she travelled to New York for the reading, for the chance to see the two on the same stage. I'm humbled by the reminder of what riches New Yorkers take for granted, and at the uncorrupted passion for reading which can be so hard to glimpse from within the citadel of publishing, but so vibrantly evident when you're on the road. No violence intended, but if my publisher's sales force could tap this woman's cerebro-spinal fluid and sneak it into the water supply--well, they'd do it, just on the chance that it worked like Mad Cow Disease.

The next night, in Kansas City on Halloween, Rainy Day Books has arranged a holiday gala: I'm the opening act for a showing of Hitchcock's Vertigo in an elegant 1950's church sactuary. After I satisfy a long-standing fantasy of being a film professor by using up half my time pontificating about Hitchcock, we settle in to watch the film, which is projected from a DVD onto a screen nearly dwarfed by a glowing stained glass window reading "LOVE". Well, Vertigo's about love of a sort. The film makes me weep, as it always does, but I'm also now struck that Kim Novak's character's makeover sequence was subliminal inspiration for Julia's Minna's backstory in Motherless Brooklyn ("He took the girl shopping for clothes in Manhattan . . . then, as an afterthought, he brought her to a salon on Montague Street, where they bleached her dark hair to platinum blond.") In this This-Is-Your-Life category at the signing are my uncles Gif and Don and my cousin Chris, all three with girlfriends, a nice triple date, and also an art dealer who's spotted my name in the newspaper and remembers my father from his teaching days at the Kansas City Art Institute. I actually lived in Kansas City when I was four years old, though this bright-scrubbed industrial park of a city doesn't remind me in any way of the old stone house in the basement of which my parents and I hid and watched The Monkees on a small black and white television during a tornado warning, one of my only Kansas City memories, I swear.

Then, in the car on the way back to my hotel my escort (that's escort in the sense of "incredibly patient and useful local guide with a Mercedes", not "sex worker") casually stuns me with the tale of his wounding in Vietnam, the exit wound the size of a grapefruit, his two years of rehabilitation in a veteran's hospital. This I'll remember after the phone interviews and photo sessions and marathon warehouse signings have blurred and faded -- though booktouring is largely a solipsistic activity, a rapid alternation, as I said, between self-aggrandizement and self-abnegation, the most vivid moments never seem to have anything to do with me or my book.

Hark. There's room service with my marinara.

Snapshots from Chicago and Milwaukee (November 1-2, 2000):

1. After a live radio interview a woman who works for the station is waiting in the lobby. She's never heard of me but listened to the interview just now and wants to shake my hand and tell me about her eighteen year-old son, who's got Tourette's and is seven feet tall. She has a sort of dazed look in her eyes. "He'd be, uh, hard to hide," I say, as sympathetically as I can.

2. Lunch in Chicago: Pringles and orange juice from the hotel minibar, during a phone interview, with most of the Pringles being ground into the carpet. Dinner in Chicago: lobster-avocado cocktail appetizer, squab tart entrZ?e, a two excellent bottles of white wine, all thanks to the hostly largesse of Alan and Amy from Random House. Booktouring in a nutshell, again: all highs and lows, with no middle in sight.

3. My escape route Thursday morning in Chicago is diverted by Gore's motorcade pushing through the city, and when I return from my reading at Harry Schwartz's bookstore in Milwaukee, I switch on the TV to discover that Bush is in town too, answering questions about drunk driving. I realize I'm touring swing states, and as I fall asleep I see the scroll at the bottom of CNN's screen: Bush 47%, Gore 44%, Nader 5%, Buchanan 1%, Essrog 0.00001%.

4. I'm not the only one working the margins of this campaign. In the seat directly behind me on the flight from Milwaukee is Al Sharpton, who suddenly strikes me as a perfect midpoint between James Brown and Captain Kangaroo. He's seated in the emergency exit row and agrees to the responsibilities this position entails. I eavesdrop on his cell phone calls as he systematically and (I suspect) routinely threatens to fire his entire staff.

"Haruki Murakami"
The New School, New York City (November 3, 2000):

My fifth city in five nights is my own, yet it's here I'm given a break from reading from my own work. Instead I'm introducing and interviewing Haruki Murakami at the New School auditorium on 12th Street. After a cab from LaGuardia home to Brooklyn and a shower and shave in my own bathroom I scribble my introductory remarks while riding the F Train into Manhattan to pick up Murakami and his wife at their midtown hotel where we take one glance at the line for cabs and Haruki suggests the subway instead. I'm sorry if you had to read that sentence twice but that's the way this day feels--no time for breath or punctuation. We're welcomed into the "Green Room" (somehow my own readings never involve a "Green Room", but I'm not bitter, no, not me) by New School Writing Program maven and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito as well as a bunch of the shining young faces who make the Vintage publicity department such a marvel of efficiency and charm. Haruki and I poke our head through the curtain and spy on the crowd: the New School's art deco auditorium is packed, wall-to-wall--Polito will later tell me it's more than five hundred people.

The reading and on-stage interview are a pure delight, and for the duration of them I forget my exhaustion completely. At Haruki's request he and I tag-team read the story: he reads a few pages in English, then switches to Japanese, then turns it over to me. Murakami's words feel a lot fresher coming out of my mouth than Motherless Brooklyn at this point, and the story is full of laugh-lines and gross-out shocks. Then we move to a table with two microphones and conduct an odd, halting, and very funny interview. I've been warned about his reserve in talking about his work, particularly in English, but in fact he works the crowd like a Japanese Roberto Begnini. I'm hung out to dry a couple of times, but I'm a willing straight man--playing constant straight man to Lionel Essrog for the last year has me in good practice.

Afterwards, dinner with Murakami and Polito and the writer Mary Morris and each of our significant others. Wonderful, but not a part of my tour, and, actually, none of your business.

New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire (November 4, 2000):

Tonight only masquerades as a tour stop--though it's included in the sheaf of itinerary prepared by my master handlers at Vintage, and I'll be reading aloud from Motherless Brooklyn, in every real sense I've dropped off the grid of airports and hotels and media dates, into something relatively timeless, delicate, and difficult to write about here. Tonight in Henniker is the opening reception for my father's ten-year retrospective exhibition of his paintings, an event which has been on my calendar for six months. I've taken it as an excuse to ask Vintage to rent me a car and book the next few dates in Maine and Massachusetts, and to stay with my father and then with friends instead of in hotels. Nothing against escorts, but for a few days I'm going to escort myself.

The New England College event is a major high spot in my father's recent career, and I'd meant to leave it to him alone. Then the curator invited me to write an essay for his catalogue and I agreed, which became a first step towards accepting--with my dad's encouragement--the English Department's invitation to read in conjunction with the opening reception. So here I am, in my sixth town in six nights, running on fumes but sustained, in this case, by the extraordinary one-of-a-kind novelty and honor of the thing. It's a bit like the Murakami occasion the night before, actually, in that I'll be working someone else's crowd instead of my own. Except, of course, this is my dad. The show itself, two luminous gallery levels filled with oil paintings, gouaches, and paintings on paper, I won't try to describe, but it's incredibly moving to see so much of my dad's work pulled out of the gloom and dinge of his studio and storage spaces and mounted against clean white walls, and to see crowds of friends and family filling the rooms.

Eventually the largest gallery is filled with a semi-circle of chairs, and I'm placed at a podium in front of the largest of my father's paintings, which depicts the suicide of the poet John Berryman amidst a swirling maelstrom of symbolic objects in a sea of brown and red. First I read my two-page statement from the catalogue, then a few pages from the novel--I try to pull out a sort of 'gallery' of moments from the book, portraits and landscapes and grotesques which resonate particularly with my father's work. Afterwards, as we gather for dinner with some old family friends, someone mentions that the colors of my shirt receded into the textures of the painting behind me, so that as I spoke my head seemed to be floating, just one more object lost in that chaotic sea. I can't think of anything more perfectly appropriate than that.

Sunday's a day off, spent in Maine, watching videos and reading the Times. Monday, election eve, Boston. Stay tuned.

"I Demand a Recount"
Brookline, Massachusetts (November 6, 2000):

Monday in Boston. A nice night. Brookline Booksmith is an elegant bookstore, and the room is packed full of people I'd like for friends, including the reader with whom I share the bill, Thisbe Nissen. I wish I'd been as relaxed as Thisbe, the first time I published. We both draw a lot of laughs and intelligent questions, and sign a lot of books. This is how a book tour should be. And I assume, how it will be again on Wednesday, after a time-out for the election. Sure, why not?

Election night is spent with old friends in Easthampton, Massachusetts, four couples sitting around a television eating takeout Chinese and sushi and making loud fun of Dan Rather's hands, which seem to be manipulating and tweaking the various states on his desktop monitor, particularly the throbbing blue peninsula of Florida. "I'm going there next week," I say to no one in particular. We're happy the state is throbbing blue, having accepted the dogma that the state is crucial for a Gore electoral victory.

Florida. Electoral. Crucial. How young we were then, how carefree and innocent and young, with no boils on our faces.

Chad is a country in Africa.

Denial is a river in Egypt.

The evening drags on, the couples drop out, one by one. I'm the last awake, a narrative junkie to the end. This has nothing to do with politics anymore, and everything to do with why I watch even the rottenest movies and television shows to the credit roll. My brain is wired for story. At 2:30 I fall asleep, sure it's Bush. The next morning--but you know where this story goes. Nowhere.

Wednesday morning I give a talk to Professor David Lenson's (author of On Drugs) undergraduate class on dystopian novels at U. Mass. It's nice to talk about Amnesia Moon instead of Motherless Brooklyn, especially to a bunch of smart flattering kids who've been reading it in the context of Brave New World and We and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Then, in the evening, a reading at Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley, to a small crowd of hardy souls as hungover from the non-election as I am. There's no point pretending it isn't on our minds, so I play anchorman, and interrupt my own reading for "breaking news" a couple of times: "Gore 260, Bush 245!"

Big laugh. Very funny. Oh, very funny.

The Macallan Gold Dagger Award,
or "Some Name-Dropping and Boasting about a Dagger"
London, England (November 10, 2000):

Now comes the weird part. I'm plucked up by some unseen force--a force both merciful and sadistic, I think, in different ways--and jerked out of the twin continuums, the twin sled-dog-races, of my tour and the election saga. The force is manifest as an innocuous e-mail from my British publisher, Faber & Faber. "You've probably won this award called the Macallan Gold Dagger for fiction," they tell me. "The winner is announced at an afternoon banquet on Friday. You might want to come to London to pick it up. We think it would be a good idea. We'll pay your airfare and accommodations."

That's the way to tempt someone away from a book tour: free plane tickets and hotel rooms, oh boy!

But Macallan is my favorite single malt scotch (that's "favorite single-malt-scotch", not "favorite-single malt-scotch", and I don't have a favorite double-malt-scotch, so don't ask), and after they tell me that the Gold Dagger has previously gone to Ruth Rendell and Eric Ambler--it's more or less England's equivalent of the Edgar Award--I decide it's good enough for me. Never mind the hotel room, though; the only way to squeeze this trip in is to leave Thursday night at eleven and come back on an evening flight from London on Friday.

After a hurried Thursday night reading at Barnes and Noble in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan--not my best, I'm afraid, a bit distracted--I take a car to JFK. The flight is, happily, almost empty, but among my fellow travelers is Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, moving inside a large and jolly posse of bandmates or bodyguards. I can tell it's Flavor Flav because, you know, he's got an unusually big clock on a chain around his neck. Again, I realize I need to add the words no kidding to this account. If I were a liar, which I'm not, I'd claim to have seen the moment mid-flight when Flavor Flav adjusted his clock for the time-zone difference. I didn't see it, though. I was asleep.

England is a blur, a pulp, an oasis. British banquet meals are pretty much like American ones, but there is a bracing dash of Macallan scotch in the chocolate dessert. And Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate of England, is seated with me at Faber's table. I do take the Gold Dagger. It comes with a bottle of Macallan ten-year, and is, when I examine it, exactly a gold dagger, with a fairly sharp point. Everyone's very nice to me, which is probably easy or hard for them depending on their feelings about meeting babbling, sleep-deprived American morons who've taken away a proper British award. I have just enough time in London for a twenty-minute walk from the banquet hall to Faber's offices: yup, this sure is London. Then a glass of champagne with my editor, Walter Donohue, and then a car back to the airport.

At Heathrow I surrender the Gold Dagger to security. They wrap in it several layers of bubble wrap and a neon-orange envelope which says "Controlled Item" and throw it in the hold. When, seven hours later, the envelope comes tumbling down the baggage chute at JFK, a sore thumb amidst the lookalike brown and black luggage, I hear some know-it-all security guard whisper to his friend: "That's a gun." I want to correct him--It's a dagger, I imagine myself hissing like a character from A Coffin For Dimitrios--but I really just don't have the energy.

"Tourette's Jail"
New York City and Philadelphia (November 11-13, 2000):

I'm in the stretch run. Sunday night's reading is in Manhattan's KGB Bar, with Jonathan Franzen--bill it as the 'come and learn to tell them apart' gig. Franzen's just finished a a long and ambitious novel he's been working on for many years now--evidence of its gorgeous prose and caustic humor has crept into view in Harper's a couple of times. He reads from it tonight, brilliantly well. Wanting to make my end of the bill equally special, and having read from Mothless Brook at KGB twice before--including a reading a year ago which I declared, heedlessly, was my "last ever" from the book, and at the end of which I gave away my specially-annotated, reading-aloud-from copy to a fan--I'm inspired to air out a few first-draft pages from my work-in-progress. The new book's voice is utterly different from Brotherless Mooks, and I'm pretty slow finding a rhythm, but by the end I think I've persuaded myself and a few others. The response is warm, anyway. Ironically, after finding KGB a pretty chilly and competitive place to read, the first few times I did it, I've turned it into a kind of home-field-advantage place by coming back so often.

Tuesday night, at a Border's in downtown Philadelphia, comes the ambush.

When I turned Monotonous Bookling in to my editor two years ago, having written a whole novel centered on Tourette's Syndrome without once consulting with either a medical expert or a patient, I braced myself for censure. The book was too irreverent and silly, I thought, not to draw fire from incensed defenders of the dignity of those for whom Tourette's wasn't, you know, a joke? Those who had to live with it every day? But it never happened. Time after time I'd see someone ticcing quietly in the audience during a reading and be sure they were ready to call down thunder on my head for dallying with their affliction, only to find--I swear!--that they wanted to shake my hand and thank me. More than that, I was welcomed into the fold of Tourette's advocacy by the firebrand activist Sue Levi-Pearl, one of the founders and pillars of the National Tourette's Association. With her imprimatur on my forehead I was sent out to do readings for local groups, and began to fancy myself not only an expert, but also an all-around upstanding guy.

Not so in Philadephia. Here, at the end of a year-long run, it finally happens, long after I'd stopped expecting it: I'm ambushed during the Q and A. Two members of the audience have come not to praise, but to bury me. They've waited through my reading, trembling in indignation the whole while, for a chance to tell me I'm not so great after all. The guy --a lawyer?--says he "represents two people with Tourette's", and that I ought to be ashamed of myself. The woman, full of righteous sarcasm, asks: "What's next--epilepsy?" Neither, when I ask, has read Moronic Brooding. I mumble and stutter through an explanation, which is actually pretty much identical to the reply I always give to the standard questions about "Why Tourette's?" and "How did you do your research?", which is to say I don't really defend myself at all, because the book either works or it doesn't, but isn't in any sense "defensible" either way.

My exhaustion collaborates usefully with my astonishment in keeping my reply bland and unexcited: I can't quite believe this is happening and I'm too tired to get aroused if it is. I just sort of talk to them until they go away, which they do. And of course, by the logic of these sorts of things, the moment after they stage their walk-out, I get a long gushy testimony from another woman in the audience: "I just want to say, I have read the book, and I love Lionel, and I love you!" The crowd wants to rescue me now, and I quite shamelessly permit it.

The truth, though, is that if I had become aroused, it would have been to join their walkout. The protesters spruced up a generic tour stop more than they could ever have guessed. I'm sick of Motiveless Breathing and Lionel Essrog and his lousy Syndrome. He's objectionable, a bad travelling partner, a bore. I feel like Dean Martin at the end of his long partnership with Jerry Lewis: get me away from this guy, please, he's not funny anymore! You're right, I'm a bad person, I should never have written this book! Take me to Tourette's Jail!

"Last Notes From Not-Quite-Home-Yet"
Tallahassee and Miami (November 11-13, 2000):

1. Okay, I'm better now. I'll be okay. And Lionel's fine, he's wonderful, we're friends again. I'm just going to quit appearing in public with him for a while, we both need a rest. Don't worry.

2. More name-dropping: Wednesday I'm in Tallahassee, where I'm reading for Mark Winegardner (author of the forthcoming Crooked River Burning, a novel with a great big heart), who teaches at F.S.U. He picks me up from the airport and we go into the middle of town, to a café beside the capital building, for beer and chicken wings. The television is on, CNN, showing Warren Christopher giving a live impromptu press conference in reaction to that morning's ruling. After Warren Christopher goes off-camera CNN switches back to the command center for a response from some other commentators. Then the door to the café swings open and four old guys in suits take the table next to us. One of them is Warren Christopher. Mark and I sit eating our wings and watching the response to Warren Christopher's comments alongside Warren Christopher, who is also watching, and eating a sandwich. David Boies, a lawyer for the Gore team, asks Warren Christopher if he wants his fries. Warren Christopher says go ahead, help yourself.

3. The 101 stories I didn't tell you: introducing Samuel Delany at a reading at the New School. Meeting Robert Olen Butler (a collector of vintage watches, he admired mine). The grilled-chicken club sandwich. The reading at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, where I met a girl whose parents lived in a commune with my father in 1975. The room-service guy who walked in on me naked in Milwaukee. The other grilled-chicken club sandwich. Talking all night with Stewart O'Nan and Mark Winegardner, two of the best-read writers I've ever met. The flight on the eight-seater, two-propeller airplane with another passenger who is blind and has a German Shepherd guide-dog which sat neatly at his feet, and the flight attendant who leaned in to tell the captain: "The dog is fully stowed." The other other grilled-chicken club sandwich.

4. Don't think I don't know how lucky I am.

5. The last stop is the Miami Book Fair--yes, I've been back and forth to Florida twice this fateful week, but in Miami, unlike Tallahassee, there isn't much sign of the election. Florida is warm, I notice. Everyone is wearing short sleeves except me. I may be very tired at this point. I read with Michael Chabon, who has the support of several charming old Florida ladies claiming to be his aunts. One of them buys my book too.

6. Really, it's all going to be fine. I'll see you next time, and thanks, thanks more than I can say, really. Really.

Praise | Awards


"The best novel of the year. . . . Utterly original and deeply moving." --Esquire

"Philip Marlowe would blush. And tip his fedora." --Newsweek

"Finding out whodunit is interesting enough, but it's more fun watching Lethem unravel the mysteries of his Tourettic creation. In this case, it takes one trenchant wordsmith to know another." --Time

"Immerses us in the mind's dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle." --The New York Times Book Review

"Who but Jonathan Lethem would attempt a half-satirical cross between a literary novel and a hard-boiled crime story narrated by an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome?...The dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity...Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artisit...Unexpectedly moving." --The Boston Globe

"With one unique and well-imagined character, Jonathan Lethem has turned a genre on its ear. He doesn't just push the envelope, he gives it a swift kick... A tour de force." --The Denver Post

"Wonderfully inventive, slightly absurdist... [Motherless Brooklyn] is funny and sly, clever, compelling, and endearing." --USA Today


NOMINEE National Book Critics Circle Awards
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

About the Guide

In a wonderfully original twist on the classic hard-boiled detective novel, Lethem presents a narrator with Tourette's Syndrome and gives his unusual hero a way with words that at first intrigues and then totally captivates the reader. Even among the orphan misfits and oddballs growing up in St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn, New York, Lionel Essrog stands out. In the grip of Tourette's Syndrome, Lionel is burdened with uncontrollable urges to count and tap things, stroke floors and doorframes, and, most embarrassing of all, kiss his classmates. But nothing is quite so troubling to Lionel as his painstakingly suppressed verbal tics, the strings of odd phrases and bursts of insults that bubble through his mind. He retreats to the Home's library, hoping to find in that vast repository of words a clue to his own language. Lionel's liberation comes from a far less likely source, however. Frank Minna, a local tough guy and fixer, selects him and three other boys to do odd jobs, and over the years shapes the motley crew into the "Minna Men," a highly unorthodox detective agency. Minna relishes Lionel's tics and quirks and under his tutelage, Lionel gives free reign his Tourettic self. So when Minna is left for dead in a Dumpster, Lionel is determined to be a real detective and find the killers.

In an investigation that quickly takes on the sporadic rhythms of his own mind, Lionel faces off with his partners at the agency; the two eccentric, aging mobsters Minna reverently referred to as "The Clients"; Zen Buddhists on Manhattan's Upper East Side; and Minna's tough-talking, very alluring widow, Julia. Ever present is Brooklyn itself--the scruffy neighborhoods where old-fashioned bosses and their unspoken rules hold at bay both the anarchic impulses that simmer among Brooklyn's multiethnic population and the slick, Manhattan-style sophistication encroaching from Brooklyn Heights and other yuppie enclaves.

Written with sly humor and filled with dazzling wordplay, Motherless Brooklyn takes the traditional conventions of detective fiction--a hero alone in his quest for justice, a plot that twists and turns with each new clue, and a cast of characters whose motivations are revealed with mounting suspense--to new heights of storytelling inventiveness.

About the Author

Jonathan Lethem is the author of the novels Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape, as well as a collection of stories, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. He is also the editor of The Vintage Book of Amnesia. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Discussion Guides

1. For readers who come to Motherless Brooklyn with little knowledge of Brooklyn, what devices, beyond straightforward descriptions, does Lethem use to capture its distinctive atmosphere?

2. Lionel's wordplay includes variations on his own name—Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclaim, for example. How does this particular quirk serve to establish Lionel's sense of himself and his place in the world? Is there an internal logic about the variations or are they simply haphazard?

3. The Minna Men are all orphans, first introduced as teenagers. Discuss how each of them carves out an identity for himself and why this is important to them. How do the initial descriptions Lionel provides of Tony [p. 39], Gil [p. 40], and Danny [p. 42-43] foreshadow the relationships among the four as adults? Do their characters change in the course of the novel?

4. Does Minna see himself as more than a boss to the young men? Does he make a conscious effort to turn the group into a family or does the family feeling develop from the needs of the young men themselves? What evidence, if any, is there that Minna's interest in them is emotional as well as practical? In what ways does Minna's relationship with his own mother and older brother influence the way he treats the Minna Men?

5. Why does Lionel say "it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak" [p.37]? What parts do Tony, Gil, and Danny play in helping Lionel accept his Tourette's Syndrome? How do their individual ways of dealing with Lionel differ? Which man's support is the most significant to Lionel both as a teenager and as an adult?

6. In describing Gil's explanation of Minna's kidnapping and murder, Lionel says "English might have been his fourth or fifth language from the sound of it" [p. 94]. Why does Lethem include this observation and other examples of mangled language throughout the book? How do they put Lionel's own "language difficulties" in perspective?

7. In addition to Lionel's wonderful, often poetic riffs, what other specific language patterns does Lethem employ to bring the various characters to life? For example, how do Lionel's conversation with the homicide detective [pp. 109-111], his initial encounter with Kimmery [p. 135] and his interview with Matricardi and Rockaforte [pp. 176-177] create impressions of these particular people that are independent of Lionel's own perceptions?

8. What role does Julia play in the novel? In what ways is she the stereotypical "dame" of other hard-boiled detective novels and films and how is she different? Do you think Julia is right when she says "No woman would ever want you, Lionel. . . . That's not really true. They might want you. . . . But they'll never be fair to you" [p. 297]?

9. Is Kimmery also a stock figure in this tradition? How does Kimmery's reaction to Lionel's Tourettic behavior differ from the reactions of the other characters? Does the brief, romantic interlude between Lionel and Kimmery advance the plot and if so, in what ways? How does it affect your understanding of Lionel? Is Kimmery "fair" to Lionel?

10. The Zen Buddhist communities in New York and Maine are not at all what they seem. Are the characters who participate in the Buddhist Zendo—Lionel's brother, Gerald, Julia, and Kimmery—influenced by Buddhist teachings? Do the principles of Zen Buddhism (either as expressed in the book by Kimmery or from your knowledge) illuminate some of the themes Lethem explores?

11. Does Lionel in fact become a "real detective"? Do his techniques fit your definition of detective work? Kimmery, for example, is skeptical about both his intentions and his working style [p. 255]. Do you think her evaluation is accurate? In other detective books you may have read, are the heroes completely removed from the personal aspects of the cases they investigate? Is the solution to Minna's murder fully satisfying in light of the evidence presented in the rest of the book?

12. At several points in the book, Lethem makes direct reference to the genres that inform Motherless Brooklyn—both the classic detective novel and "wiseguy" novels and movies. For example, Minna teases Gil for saying "piece," rather than "gun" [p. 8]; and Lionel asks "Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step on to the page and burden you with his actual existence?" [p. 119]. In another passage, Lionel compares himself to the standard set in detective literature: "So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange, swirling darknesses . . . and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition" [p. 205]. Why does Lethem include these references? Are they simply there for "comic relief" or do they serve another purpose?

13. By using Lionel as narrator, Lethem is following a long tradition in detective fiction. In what ways would the impact on the reader be different if a third-person voice told the story? Why do you think he chose to use a narrator with Tourette's Syndrome? Is this purely a literary device, giving him the opportunity to play with language as an author? Do the classic detective heroes—for example, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe—have quirks comparable to Lionel's?

14. Does the title of the book refer only to the four orphans who make up the Minna Men? In what ways is Brooklyn itself "motherless"?

15. The Voice Literary Supplement wrote "Lethem loves to cross-wire popular genres and watch the sparks fly." In addition to the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, what other genre does Lethem draw on in Motherless Brooklyn?

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