Lionel Essrog, a half-boiled detective, needs to know who murdered Frank Minna, the petty criminal who was his father figure. Essrog's an orphan, survivor of the Saint Vincent's Home for Boys. Also, he has Tourette's Syndrome, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that first manifested by forcing him to chase loose shoelaces and kiss classroom bullies full on their astonished lips. With maturity, Essrog's tics have turned verbal. He punctuates his speech with spoonerisms, puns, neologisms, and obscenities, spewing echolalia like a salad-shooter stuffed full of dictionaries. Sometimes sense makes it through this manic onslaught:
"We're -- Detectapush! Octaphone! -- We're a detective agency."
At other times, like the scene wherein Essrog attempts to infiltrate a suspicious Zen meditation session, the words overwhelm everything in their path:
"'Zengeance!' I shouted.... 'Ziggedy zendoodah.' My erection dimmed, energy venting elsewhere. 'Pierogi monster Zen master zealous neighbor. Zazen zaftig Zsa Zsa go-bare.' I rapped the scalp of the sitter in front of me. 'Zippity go figure.'"
Lethem has enormous fun with these outbursts, and so does the reader. Essrog's riffs on The Artist Formerly Known As Prince made me laugh out loud the first and second times I read them; the third time, too, as I flew home from my grandmother's funeral. The humor in this novel has the ability not to penetrate sorrow, but to blend smoothly with it. As Essrog bravely struggles to question suspects and follow leads without blurting out his few hard-won secrets, he becomes a perfect stand-in for the Holy Fool, the archetypal idiot inside us all.
Essrog's early loserdom saw him skulking around the Home's library, reading old Theodore Dreiser paperbacks. He lived as an outcast among outcasts. With Minna's intervention, Essrog and three other boys left the Home to work at various urgent moving jobs. They became "Minna Men," modeling themselves on the "miasmic Frank Sinatra moment" that surrounded their mentor:
"Minna Men wear suits. Minna Men drive cars. Minna Men listen to tapped lines. Minna Men stand behind Minna, hands in their pockets, looking menacing.... Minna Men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead."
Post-Minna, Essrog returns to earlier role models: Art Carney, Buster Keaton, Daffy Duck. With slapstick grace, he falls through doormen, insults cops, and ingests near-lethal doses of wasabi in his effort to find the Snuffleupagus-like truth. He also has a few intimate moments with women: " -- women! Exotic as letters, as phone calls, as forests, all things we orphans were denied."
Motherless Brooklyn is a man's world, but as James Brown says, it wouldn't be nothin' without a woman or a girl. Though the novel focuses mainly on father-and-son ties, the mutual rapprochement of the sexes is as problematic here as in many of Lethem's other works. Minna Women are silent, like Minna's mother, or indifferent, like his gum-chewing, lipstick-swabbing dates. Or sullen, wounded, and hostile, like his wife, Julia, who suffers her own personal strain of Toxic Absent-Fatherism.
Essrog still takes a stab at joy with Kimmery, a free-floating Zen student. Their affair is a flimsy one, a tar-paper shack hastily thrown up on a blasted landscape of emotional connectivity. They huddle in the foyer of Kimmery's huge apartment as he explains to her what he's learned so far about the murder:
"Oh, that's terrible."
"'Yes.'" I wondered if I could ever share with her how terrible it was.... Kimmery leaned closer, comforting the cat, not me. But I felt comforted. She and I were drawn close within her dawning understanding."
Fleeting as these moments are, they're a far cry from the parodic pathology of Gun with Occasional Music. Halfway through that book (Lethem's first), a beautiful woman macks all over the protagonist. But, Marlowesque, he isn't having any of it:
"I wanted to hit her as much as I wanted to fuck her, and she probably wanted to be hit as much as she wanted anything. So I hit her. I was certainly more equipped to do that than the other thing."
Lethem's earlier concerns with genre boundaries (some of which were expressed in his controversial and much-reprinted essay, "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction"), and the energy with which he conflated them, seem to have slackened. He's sloughed off the armature of science fiction, its tropes and expectations, though he still deals with its subject matter when exploring how Essrog's peculiar brain chemistry influences his interactions with the world. And the sharkskin suitcoat of crime-caperism fits him casually now, with none of the tailored hysteria of Gun with Occasional Music. The wardrobe's there, but it's no big deal.
In Motherless Brooklyn, these are the big deals: the characters, their stories, the voices in which their stories get told, and the poignant hilarity inherent in all of the above. Sex is funny. Helplessness is funny. Blood and obstinacy and vengeance are screamingly funny. And at the same time they are horribly sad, and as tender as reworked bruises.
Jonathan Lethem reads Fri Oct 1 at Elliott Bay Books, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, 7:30 pm, free (advance tickets recommended).