Thursday, April 21, 2005

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Imagine that whenever you begin a sentence--jackaphone, dirtyworker, dirketyname—you are suddenly compelled—luddenly compulsed—to throw in strings of nonsense—nun of strings--and unable to do resist the temptation, no matter the effect on those around you. That is, try to imagine the world of person who has Tourette’s syndrome. Imagine further trying to write a novel through the eyes of a character whose Torettic impulses vibrate and pulse through every page. Among other things, this is the accomplishment of Jonathan Lethem in his wonderfully twisted little mystery novel entitled, Motherless Brooklyn.

This is a book I probably would have missed save for the keen eyes of a reader friend of mine, Robert Mercer, who is also the head of advising for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University. Although I tend to avoid both mysteries and best-sellers, I’m so glad that I, once again, took Robert’s advice and read this book. I suppose it is a mystery, and that at least a part of its popularity has to do with unraveling the plot, but I see this much more as a book about what it means to be poor and abandoned in the big cities of the world, made worse, of course, if one is viewed as a freak.

This is really a book about four boys, all orphans, thrown together in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn. Their savior, or at any rate the person who finds some use for them, is a small-time hood and hustler who realizes the value of cheap labor that can be manipulated, trained to take orders, and not to ask questions. Frank Minna makes some sort of bargain with the priest who heads up the orphanage and takes four young teenage boys out of captivity for a day; they shuffle boxes from one truck to another, or from truck to warehouse, happy to be outside and at work. At the end of the day, each boy gets a $20 dollar bill and a few beers, probably their first beers and their first earned cash, and a quick-talking lesson from Frank Minna about the streets, about New York, about life. And this begins a series of such days, of unexplained errands, always ending with the beers and the cash and punctuated by the cynical teaching from the boss. Over the years, the jobs change some, the pay increases some, until all ‘graduate’ from the orphanage and become full-fledged Minna-men. The moving company has evolved into a private car-service, which is itself a front for a sleazy detective agency, and that again a front for something darker and more dangerous, though the Minna-men know next to nothing about who hires them or what they really are about.

There must be millions of stories not unlike this one—children of big cities, discarded, abandoned, and ‘saved’ by some false god who manages to fashion them in his image, to use them, sell them, put them in harm’s way. In this case, the boys repay their savior, their only father-figure, with loyalty and clumsy, sweetly pathetic attempts to emulate their surrogate-father.

I was not surprised to see in the acknowledgements a thanks to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who talks with such wonderfully sympathetic understanding of Tourette’s in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. Nor was I surprised to read the long list of names either of people who have Tourette’s or their families or others who have studied the effects of this strange disease. Jonathan Lethem obviously knows Tourettes from up close, so close that I found myself convinced the he must be Tourettic himself. He also understands poverty and the vulnerability of the poor. And yet this is not a depressing book. Indeed, it is often funny and heartwarming, and even the mystery component of it is quite good, pulling the reader along, entertaining while edifying.

The reader discovers not many pages into this book that the Father, the Boss, the Savior, Frank Minna, has been murdered, and now the Minna Men are on their own, left not only to fend for themselves (as they never have since their orphanage days), but to try to find the killer, unravel the mystery of his death. And although they worked for him, Frank has kept them wrapped in ignorance, unaware of the significance of their own actions, and consequently unaware of the dangers that now shadow them as they play detective. Let the main character, Lionel Essrog, speak for himself for a moment in the clever, cubistic style Lethem adopts for this book.
See me now, at one in the morning, stepping out of another cab in front of the Zendo, checking the street for cars that might have followed, for giveaway cigarette-tip glows through the windows of the cars parked on the deadened street, moving with my hands in my jacket pockets clutching might-be-guns-for-all-they-know, collar up against the cold like Minna, unshaven like Minna now, too, shoes clacking on sidewalk: think of a coloring-book image of the Green Hornet, say. That’s who I was supposed to be, that black outline of a man in a coat, ready suspicious eyes above his collar, shoulders hunched, moving toward conflict.

Here’s who I was instead: that same coloring-book outline of a man, but crayoned by the hand of a mad or carefree or retarded child, wild slashes of idiot color, a blizzard of marks violating the boundaries that made man distinct from street, from world. Some of those colors were my fresh images of Kimmery, flashing me back to the West Side an hour before, crayon stripes and arrows like flares over Central Park in the night sky. Others weren’t so pretty, roaring scrawls of mania,
find-a-man-kill-a-phone-fuck-a-plan in sloppy ten-foot-high letters drawn like lightning bolts or Hot Wheels race-car flames through the space of my head. And the blackened steel-wool scribble of my guilt-deranged investigation: I pictured the voices of the two Minna brothers and Tony Vermonte and The Clients as gnarled above and around me, in a web of betrayal I had to penetrate and dissolve, an ostensible world I’d just discovered was really only a private cloud I carried everywhere, had never seen the outside of. So, crossing the street to the door of Zendo, I might have appeared less a single Green Hornet than a whole inflamed nest of them.
This is not a book I expected to enjoy, although in the first twenty pages of frenetic, Tourettic speech, I was hooked. I thought I was hooked simply by the irony of a Tourettic detective, by the cleverness of the author creating his lead character, but the deeper into the book I got, the more a world was being disclosed to me, a world of orphan loyalty, of street goodness, of corporate greed and ruthlessness. It turned out to be a book well worth reading, its lessons delivered in a mellifluous, Tourettic cadence by a character as wise as Philip Marlowe and certainly more loveable.

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