What makes your protagonist different? What makes him memorable? Get this question right, and you’re halfway to a decent story. Get it wrong – too quirky, too stereotypical, too shallow – and you’re probably doomed. Jonathan Lethem makes all the right choices.
That’s why things were looking good, right off the bat, when I picked up Motherless Brooklyn because the book is told in first person by Lionel Essrog, a pretty smart and articulate guy, when he’s not undone by his Tourette’s. Unfortunately, that’s pretty often, because it’s brought on by stress and Lionel leads a pretty stressful life as a low-level operative for a not-very-successful detective agency. He barks. He counts. He shouts profanities. He has an awfully hard time getting a date.
Lionel is one of four boys plucked by Frank Minna from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys (an orphanage, hence the Motherless). Frank’s a good guy at heart, married to a woman who’s clearly too classy for him, and evidently in over his head because he’s stabbed to death by page 30.
The rest of the book outlines Lionel’s dogged determination to solve Frank’s murder. The plot doesn’t move quickly – there’s too much back story and too many side stories for that – but it does move compellingly. It’s pretty noir with its grit, hard-hearted women and heartless violence, and the Soprano-esque overtone is strong when the mystery is finally solved. It’s also funny, filled with entertaining characters, and has a lot of heart. Not much more than 300 pages, it’s still a bigger book than most of the others I’ve read recently and makes Joseph Finder’s Guilty Minds look like a formula caper. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
How does it stack up as a summer read? Maybe not a lazy hammock read, but I started it one evening, kept reading as the sun sank below the horizon, and couldn’t put it down until way after bedtime. Definitely one to seek out.