Monday, December 8, 2014

Motherless Brooklyn

The third most interesting thing about MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, by Jonathan Lethem, is its plot (and that plot is quite fresh and compelling in and of itself). The second most interesting thing about it is the Brooklyn that it portrays. The most interesting thing about it by far, though, is the main character, the sleuth, if you will, whose name if Lionel Essrog. Lionel has Tourette’s Syndrome, a kind of obsessive compulsive disorder wherein he is compelled to count things; perform obsessive rituals; wherein he suffers from tics; and wherein he cannot completely control the urge to take in the words the world gives him, re-arrange them in accidental (but often profound and hilarious) ways, and send them back into the void of silence from which they came. You might think this Tourette’s thing is just another gimmick, a shtick, another crime writer’s ploy to try and make his character stand out from the pack—we have alcoholic detectives, and female detectives, and wheelchair-bound detectives, little old lady detectives, housewife-amateur detectives, teenage-boys-suffering-from-autism detectives, et al—and a detective with Tourette’s could be just another oddball to add to an odd lot. But it isn’t. Lionel’s problem (along with the fact that his mentor and boss Frank Minna has been killed) is one that does not function merely to distinguish him from the other horses in the detective sweepstakes, but also as a vehicle through which Lethem explores both the nature of language and what it means to be human.

Lionel is constantly looking for meaning in the Brooklyn in which he has lived for his whole life. He is a ward of the State, an orphan residing in St Vincent’s Home for Boys, and as if the clich├ęd but true experience of being “different” weren’t enough, he has the Tourette’s to deal with. The Tourette’s is a cause for deep reflection on his part (this deep reflection being something people mistakenly assume he can’t engage in). He thinks the Tourette’s is a virus, an invader, alien to his true self, but he also (and rightly I think) wonders how he can see something as outside of him when it is so tied up with all that is him, with the very way he thinks and takes in the world—when you have a mental illness, where do you end and where does the illness begin? How do you know?

Lionel looks for the meaning in his life, and is bewildered. He reads a lot. He has sometimes uncontrollable urges to touch things or people in ritual fashion, and he tries to stay away from people as a consequence. It’s a lonely existence. And people continually prove to him that in thinking that he is stupid, they are somewhat stupid themselves. People try to find some kind of psychological profundity in his utterances, even though he keeps telling them that the verbal tics are just as meaningless as the tics of his head. He often cannot help but blurt out exhortations to “Bailey” which is a tic, but who becomes to him some kind of everyman, a John Q Public, a Kilroy, and “eatmebailey” is one of his most frequent, and mortifying, tics.

One day Frank Minna, low-level mobbed up guy from the Court Street neighborhood, enlists Lionel and three other boys from the home—Gilbert, Tony and Danny—to do a little work for him “moving things.” What they move is stolen merchandise, for Frank, who is moving it for two old Dons, Matricardi and Rocaforte. Frank’s brother Gerard is involved, and when the boys are old enough to leave the home, they become “Minna Men”—ostensibly car service drivers, they think of themselves as detectives, although what they are might be seen more as errand boys for a couple of mooks (I love that word).

Minna has a style, and a love for the boys, and a way with language, that earns him their respect, their admiration, and at least in the case of Lionel, his love, even though Minna calls him the “free Human Freak Show” and Lionel sorely tries his patience by “tugging the boat” or pushing a joke or gag or good natured insult too far, which is kind of hard for him not to do with Tourette’s (he compulsively tells a jokes, and is compelled to finish no matter what happens during the telling). Minna has a kind of cockeyed, very Brooklyn way of looking at things (e.g., you should be what you are fully, no matter how distasteful that thing might be, so it is better to be fully a fag then “half a fag”), and a streetwise philosophical take in things that Lionel eats up with a spoon. As they stroll the neighborhood, Minna tells Lionel there’s a common misunderstanding (“as if he was an idol and I were his public,” says Lionel) that he likes only women with very large breasts: “thing is for me, I need a woman with a certain amount of muffling, you know, something between you, in the way of insulation. Otherwise, you’re right up against her naked soul.”

And it is not just Minna that has a way with words—so does Lethem/Lionel. When Minna dies, Lionel says, “We were all four an arrangement with a missing centerpiece, as incoherent as a verbless sentence.” That is just great writing. I can’t say exactly why, but it is. And I can’t resist one more. When the boys finally go to high school, they are suddenly around females: “and there we mixed with girls for the first time, about as well as chunks of road salt in ice cream.” You can go to writing class to learn how to write, perhaps, but nobody is going to teach you how to write like that. You either look into your verbal arsenal and find those words there or you don’t.

Lionel gets up right up against his own naked soul after Frank gets killed by a pierogi-eating giant mysteriously connected to a Buddhist Zendo. Somehow Gerard, and Rockaforte and Matricardi, are involved, as well as a mysterious Japanese corporation that owns a huge building on Park Avenue. The funniest, and surprisingly scary, scene in the book comes when Lionel tries to spy on the proceedings at the Zendo by sitting Sazen (in silence) with the other acolytes, only to have a massive attack of his verbal tic-ing reveal him to the Giant (who is also big on eating kumquats).
Along the way, Lionel falls in love, and has sex with Kimmery, a girl at the Zendo. She is Zen enough to abide his tics for a while, but in the most heart rending scene in the book, she tells him it is creepy to call her so much on his cell phone, but it becomes a tic he can’t stop, and he drives her away.

The resolution of the plot is not what concerns me most here. Let’s just say that Lionel manages to unravel everything, and a lot of what he learns is stuff he would rather not know. There is even a femme fatale, and of her Lionel says “she was the hardest boiled of us all because she was the unhappiest.” Lionel manages to disarm her in a showdown at a lighthouse in Maine, and he throws her gun into the water. Unfortunately, his obsession that day was fives, and he ends up needing to throw four more things in, the last one being his shoe. It’s funny, but heartbreaking too.

Looking back on what he has done, Lionel figures he has ridden the V train (for vengeance), and he has done it with “a handful of names and other words, strung together into something more effective than a tic.” And as for Frank, he says Frank is a part of him, “deeper than mere behavior, deeper even than regret, because he gave me my life.” That string of words is way more meaningful than a tic, and is worthy of any “real” father.

© 2014 Mike Welch

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