National Book Critics Circle, Fiction, 2000 From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel. Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart language in startling and original ways. Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable. When Frank is fatally stabbed, Lionel's world is suddenly turned upside-down, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case, while trying to keep the words straight in his head. A compulsively involving and totally captivating homage to the classic detective tale.
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This is the story of a private detective who has Tourette’s syndrome who is obsessed with trying to figure out who killed his boss. It’s mystery novel, but the mystery really takes the backseat to Lionel, a hilarious heartbreak of a protagonist, and one of the most intriguing characters I’ve come across: Lionel Essrog.
At least, that’s how I remembered it. Motherless Brooklyn is a novel I’d read probably a decade ago. It won the National Book Critics Award, and ever since I started listening to audiobooks, it was one I’d been looking forward to hearing. And now – it’s FINALLY available to download. So, was it worth the wait?
Without a doubt, yes. As a character, Lionel is still unique. (Just look at that name. Lionel Essrog.) And with that set up, you really have to give Lethem serious credit for that. He could’ve made this a stupid joke, but he works hard to get underneath Lionel’s skin, and show us the man behind the tics. At the same time, he mines the funny – the tics Lionel gets obsessed with EAT ME BAILEY are, well, funny.
Lethem is probably one of my favorite contemporary writers. His prose has a rhythm to it, his characters are quirky perfections, his dialogue is razor sharp and layered. He’s also one of the few authors who can make me burst out laughing while I’m reading him. On the page, it all moves and flows with perfection. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like it always has that same smoothness to it in audio. It’s not choppy, exactly. It’s just not as smooth. I don’t know how much of that is due to Cantor’s narration (which is generally solid), or with the transition of prose to audio.
I can imagine some mystery fans being disappointed that the climax is bigger or louder or more shocking. Well, they can Eat Bailey too. I didn’t remember how the mystery panned out at all, and while the unraveling of the mystery is quiet, we get some incredible scenes, locations, and characters that more than make up for it.
Geoffrey Cantor does disaffected New Yorker with ease, and manages to convey both the humor and heartbreak behind Lionel’s condition. He’ll be describing New York one moment and START SHOUTING the next. It’s a good narration, even if Cantor doesn’t quite match Lionel’s voice in my head.
It’s really nice that at long last Motherless Brooklyn is out digitally. It’s one of Lethem’s best books, and Lethem is one of my favorites, so I consider this a win for Bailey.