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By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, Hardcover, 311 pages, (September, 1999) $23.95
Reviewed by Anthony Neil Smith (11/99)
Crime novel of the year. And most certainly one of the best all-around novels of the year. I have to agree with Luc Sante in VLS that Lethem writes books that "sustain, perfect, and destroy the givens of genre all at once." While mostly working with Sci-Fi type themes before, he has shown an affection for pulp detectives in the past (GUN WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC), but this time he grounds the detective in the present--or maybe two steps ahead of the present. And the target here is not the idea or conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, but rather the language of the genre. Our detective narrator, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's Syndrome, which allows us to see the world through the haze of tics and obsessions he faces as he tries to find his employer's killer.
Lionel is one of the Minna Men, an investigator for Frank Minna's small detective/car service in Brooklyn. All four Minna Men are orphans whom Frank befriended when they were young teenagers and Frank was in his early twenties. Over the years he came to them when he needed help for shady jobs about which he would give them limited info. These boys learned about life outside the orphanage from Frank. They modeled their lives on his persona. And Frank was the first person to ever give a name to Lionel's Tourette's, all the while affectionately nicknaming him "Freakshow."
So when Frank is stabbed under unusual circumstances, Lionel and another Minna Man get to him just in time to have a final conversation on the way to the hospital. Frank doesn't give up his killer, but instead trades jokes with Lionel, part of an ongoing dialogue they've had for fifteen years. Shortly after arriving at the emergency room, Frank dies, and the Minna Men have to learn to survive in a world without Frank, using everything he taught them to track down the killer. And none of the Men trust each other.
So the issue here is language and meaning. Frank liked to talk like a wise guy, full of insults and jibes, full of colorful metaphors. Lionel was always on the verge of taking phrases, jokes, names, etc. and twisting them into new combinations. He couldn't let language go--he was a prisoner to it. And sometimes, that isn't such a bad thing. What do we hide and reveal unknowingly everyday in our normal conversations? How much of language do we take for granted?
Beyond those questions, how about the language of hard-boiled novels and movies? Developed and refined in the early decades of this century, the direct, raw prose of Hammett and Cain, plus the romantic spin on this language by Chandler, hasn't changed all that much in the genre. Detectives still sneer and speak in a street-level shorthand that sounds like it still belongs to a time of fedoras and double-breasted suits. I think it's best for the genre if more writers explore their relationships to language in order to keep hard-boiled prose always slippery and changing. Contemporary hard-boiled authors should think about ways to reflect on our End of the Millennium modern world much in the way the pulps reflected their own times.
That's the triumph of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN--it pulls away the sheetrock to show you the pipes, and further shows you the rust, the cracks, and the leaks. A wonderful and touching story of friendship, loss, trust and distrust, told through the lens of an obsession Lionel was born with and can't control. On top of that, Lethem sets the story on the streets of Brooklyn which he knows so well, as Lionel spends most of his time on foot, working the city like the gumshoe Frank taught him to be. There's a beautiful line in here, used as a refrain throughout the novel, based on an old beat cop's response to excuses he encountered when dispersing loitering kids and teenagers. He would say while waving them off: Yeah, Yeah. Tell your story walking.
Necessary reading for anyone who cares about the future of the genre.
Other titles by this author include: GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC and GIRL IN LANDSCAPE (fantasy).
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