Not only is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn funny, well-written, well-plotted and really quite touching for a crime novel, it is all these things consistently throughout the book.
Lionel Essrog, our protagonist, has Tourette’s syndrome. While he has come up with ways to disguise his offensive vocal outbursts, his “kissing phase” tic doesn’t exactly go down well in the Brooklyn school for orphan boys he attends. A misfit among misfits who spends most of his time in the school library, he is plucked along with a few other schoolmates to do grunt work for Frank Minna, a local small time crook with big time ambitions. Frank’s a foul-mouthed father figure of sorts and the boys see their work for him as the best thing they’ve got going. When Frank is set up and murdered one day, Lionel takes it upon himself to try and solve the murder, incessant tics and all.
It isn’t easy to explain the charm of this book, because it’s one of those you-had-to-be-there reads, and its many funny/poignant moments don’t lend themselves well to excerpting. I guess I found Lionel an extremely appealing protagonist, superficially at the mercy of his tics but able to transcend them, where it counted, through resilience and ingenuity. The people around him don’t really know much about his problem; to them he’s undeniably weird but over the years they’ve come to understand him well enough not to beat him up when he taps them six times on each shoulder or tells them to EAT ME FUCKFACE. Frank calls him Freakshow, and asks him to tell jokes because he gets a kick out of seeing how far Lionel can get through the joke without ticcing, but there’s a real fondness between Frank and Lionel which Lethem skilfully and unsentimentally depicts throughout the novel. It’s ultimately what keeps Lionel going in his efforts to solve the murder – the wish to do right by someone who did him right, and who he misses deeply.
Even if you’re totally unconvinced by anything I’ve written about Motherless Brooklyn, I’d recommend you try it anyway. It’s been quite a struggle to explain why exactly I thought it was so good, but I don’t want my failure to do you out of a really good read.