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Publisher's Summary

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.

©1999 Jonathan Lethem (P)2014 HarperCollinsPublishers

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

Overall

  • 4 out of 5 stars
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Dave
  • Whittier, CA
  • 05-01-14

You're Not the Only Freak Show in Town!

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.

(Originally published at the AudioBookaneers.)

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Top notch audiobook: novel and performance both A+

Thrilling chandleresque detective story, except the hardboiled narrator is a sensitive Brooklyn misfit with Tourette's.

Reading performance is really good.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Excellent

There is a minimum of 15 words for a review. So just one excellent won't cover it. Excellent story, excellent performance, just plain excellent. There wasn't a false step in Motherless Brooklyn. Buy it, read it, listen to it, whatever. You will be so glad you did't miss this book.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 05-08-14

Egg-sandwich surprise, hardboilded detective novel

A kinda egg-sandwich surprise, hardboilded detective novel. I'm still a bit unsure of what exactly was all tossed in (is that lemongrass?). Zen masters? Check. Tourette's? Check. Man-crushes and awkward touches? Check check. Prince (or the Artist Formerly Known AS Prince)? Also, check check checkaramadingdong.

Look fair weather readers, I like Lethem (see four stars?...I couldn't stop at three), just like I like Chabon. Actually, almost exactly like I like Chabon. There is a certain dance, jig, and Brooklyn-hipster style to both their writing, complete with their shared fetishes (comic books, vinyl chairs, bad hair, crappy cars, carnival food, odd screwballs). They seem to be barycentric binaries or orbs orbiting the same point in space; two vultures circling the same diseased zip code of literary space-time. So, yes, I enjoyed it. But also felt like I was robbed a bit, like a bit of the potential for this novel got skimmed off into some dark, back-room, and I was left holding less than a royal flush. I was treated to a comic when I wanted a novel, a girl when I wanted a woman, a joke when I wanted a koan.

10 of 15 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

“Prince's music calmed me...."

“Prince's music calmed me as much as masturbation or a cheeseburger.”
Lionel Essrog, protagonist in Motherless Brooklyn


Lethem's 1999 literary detective novel set in Brooklyn was a fun read, much more layered and satisfying than the hard-boiled detective novels. The protagonist Lionel Essrog grew up an orphan and was nicknamed "The Human Freakshow" due to his Tourette syndrome. In lesser hands, these verbal tics could have turned gimmicky, but here Lethem fully develops Essrog and makes the reader care about him.

Essrog is working for Frank Minna, who has some mob connections and owns a "seedy," "makeshift" detective agency (a front for two-bit organized crime), when Minna is murdered by stabbing. Essrog's suspenseful journey investigating and solving the crime is always intelligent and often risible.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Good story, annoying character quirk.

Is there anything you would change about this book?

I realize that changing what I'm about to say would go against the entire character but having him have Tourette's is really grating after a while.

If you’ve listened to books by Jonathan Lethem before, how does this one compare?

I haven't listened to other books though if the story in this one is any indication I'd be interested in listening to another one.

What does Geoffrey Cantor bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

Despite my annoyance with the character's syndrome, Cantor does a great job at portraying the character while also giving each additional character their own unique voice and personality. His performance mad it all worth it in the end.

Could you see Motherless Brooklyn being made into a movie or a TV series? Who should the stars be?

I could definitely see it being made into a movie. There's the upcoming adaptation by Edward Norton though I would say someone like Caleb Landry Jones would be a more fun choice.

Any additional comments?

Understand that the Tourette's of it all might be grating to the ears and might ruin the narration of the book, though if you can look past that the story itself is decent and worth a listen. Though I wonder if it would be better to read this rather than listen to it.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A brilliant book, even better recorded.

Lethem's take on the hard-boiled genre and his finest novel by far, Motherless Brooklyn is an ambivalent love letter-cum-polemic of the borough that provides it's setting, attitude, and narrative core. His choice of a Tourettic narrator, which could easily descend into the gimmicky and lazy, resists every easy out and provides a fascinating insight on a syndrome, a vanished culture and world, and, above all, the mind of a fascinating and fully-realized man. The verbal tics that pepper Lionel's dialogue are convincingly and evocatively read in Cantor's performance, adding to the internal music and logic that emerges from them over the course of the novel.
This is not a mystery to read for its plot, beyond the broadest generalities. Rather, it is a novel of line-by-line rewards that both ennoble and mock the body of mystery from which they draw, in much the same way that the story treats Brooklyn itself.
Having read this book both before and after Chandler and other classic noir writers, I can attest that there is great enjoyment here both with and without familiarity with the literary background.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Excellent story told well

This was a great story with a very good narrator. Accents and voices were by and large believable (including a couple of not-terrible Maine accents, which as a Mainer I find extremely rare and a great relief). The one weak spot is in women's voices which all sound weirdly breathy and a little dumb. I've yet to find an audio book with a male reader that does this well, though, and this wasn't as disruptive as others. All in all, an excellent listen

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Loved it, perfect narration

Great story with a perfect narration. Loved it, highly recommend to all. Good humour too!

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

loved it

I don't normally like a mystery or books about New York mafia but tis one was different. I loved what was essentially the character study of the main character or study of characters through his eyes.