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Motherless Brooklyn

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  39,246 ratings  ·  3,407 reviews
Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn’s very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in the most 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 Minna, the c ...more
Paperback, 311 pages
Published October 24th 2000 by Vintage (first published 1999)
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Mark Vickers It satisfied me because of the beauty of the writing and eccentricity of the narrator, but it is far from a conventional mystery. If one only reads fo…moreIt satisfied me because of the beauty of the writing and eccentricity of the narrator, but it is far from a conventional mystery. If one only reads for the mystery plot line, then it's satisfactory but not great. If one reads as a work of art, it's terrific.(less)
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Ray Palen I believe the Giant definitely exists.

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Average rating 3.86  · 
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What is it about Brooklyn? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Joe Pitt in Half the Blood of Brooklyn. Last Exit to Brooklyn. Not to mention a hundred different movies. Something there must spark the imagination, get at the essence of life.

Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most solidly crafted books I've read this year. Since it's the end of February that may not sound like much, so I'll throw in December and November of 2017 as well. Really, it was just so pleasant to trust in Lethem, with page after pag
Kevin Kelsey
Dec 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2016, read-2019
“In detective stories things are always always, the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations. This or that runs deep or true to form, is invariable, exemplary. Oh sure. Seen it before, will see it again. Trust me on this one.

Assertions and generalizations are, of course, a version of Tourette’s. A way of touching the world, handling it, covering it with confirming language.”

This was a very
Oct 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
I used to have a customer with Tourette’s. Back when I was a teenage supermarket teller, a million and a half years ago, she used to come through my line routinely. At the time, I didn’t reflect much on her condition other than that I assumed it must be tough for her occasionally, but how tough it really was I considered only in the vaguest sense, to the extent that I considered it at all. (Sorry, lady, but I was 17 and had a whole slew of 17 year-old thoughts to preoccupy myself with.) She seem ...more
Elyse  Walters
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
I read this 'often hilarious'-[one-of-a-kind]-novel many years ago --

The main character has Tourette's syndrome. I must have read this about 10 years ago. I've yet to read another novel (crime-satire-whodunit-to boot), with a story centered around 'Tourette's syndrome.
No other author wanted to go toe-to-toe with, Jonathan Lethem, huh?

"Eat S*it"... "go F#*+K yourself" ...."Thehorrorthehorror" .....
and "Icouldabeenacontender!" is endearing in the most pure *Zen-in-the city*!

Wonderful reviews he
Steven Godin
Aug 17, 2018 rated it really liked it

Ziggedy Zendoodah!

This rip-roaring take on the classic detective story features an unlikely hero, a gumshoe with Tourette's syndrome, Lionel Essrog, AKA - 'The Human Freakshow', an intellectually sensitive type, with a bad case of Tourette's. Bristling with odd habits and compulsions, his mind continuously revolting against him in lurid outbursts of strange verbiage. He is compelled to snap, count, bark, grunt, tap and make strange Vocalizations at inopportune moments, sometimes even with a gun
Mar 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
“Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain---same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back. Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer.”
― Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn


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 Kn
Mar 09, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: public-library
Well, shoot.  Despite the many 4 and 5 star reviews from my GR buddies, I failed to get a grip with this one.  At first the ticcing, touching, tapping, mirroring, and counting by Lionel Essrog (aka Freakshow) was entertaining and funny.  But soon, it became tiresome and repetitive to me.  And then I felt bad, because I could make it stop it by putting the book aside, a resolution that was not available to  Lionel.  There is some clever writing in here, and a scene set in a Japanese restaurant th ...more
Julie Ehlers
Have you read Motherless Brooklyn yet? If not, what are you waiting for? I mean, sure, the idea of an orphaned private detective with Tourette's Syndrome sounded a little strange to me too, possibly even depressing, but as it turns out this novel is anything but depressing. It's hilarious! And exciting! The book begins with a car chase, which is exactly the sort of thing that seems like a terrible idea to me, but I was riveted and that feeling didn't let up. The aforementioned orphaned detective ...more
Violet wells
There are more laugh out loud moments in this novel than in anything I’ve read for ages. Lionel, the orphaned aspiring detective with Tourettes is an adorable character. (Lethem helps us understand that we all have Tourettes to some extent: "Insomnia is a variant of Tourette's--the waking brain races, sampling the world after the world has turned away, touching it everywhere, refusing to settle, to join the collective nod. The insomniac brain is a sort of conspiracy theorist as well, believing t ...more
Dec 14, 2009 rated it it was ok
Way too gimmicky! About Motherless Brooklyn Newsday calls Jonathan Lethem "one of the most original voices among younger American novelists;" while Entertainment Weekly describes him as "one of our most inventive, stylish and sensous writers." I strongly disagree. I think these organiztions have confused originality with gimmickry.

Goodreads interviewed Jonathan Lethem in their November newsletter. I'd never heard of him. I checked out a couple of his books at the library, one for me, one for m
Jul 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Frank Minna was a small fish in a big city pond full of piranhas and scum. He was nimble, though; good with angles. His best move was when he recruited four young guys from the local orphanage, before they were old enough to shave, to be errand boys. These young bucks were eager, loyal assistants that somebody dubbed Motherless Brooklyn. Frank treated them to bigger boy delights like twenty dollar bills and bottles of beer for their efforts, and they just stayed on staff as they got older and mo ...more
Jan 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
“Prince's music calmed me as much as masturbation or a cheeseburger.”
Lionel Essrog, protagonist in Lethem's 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
Aug 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Maybe I've just been lucky picking out some incredible books lately, but I feel like a lot of them are "my new favorite", or "one of the best I've read this year", but I really have to say it again for Motherless Brooklyn. Lethem's writing style had me from the beginning, and the story, being told from the perspective of Lionel Essrog, a man with Tourette's Syndrome was fascinating. It reads like a mystery/detective novel, but really, it's so much more than that.

Also, it was just one of those bo
Dec 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My favourite novel of the year.

Lionel Essrog is a loveable orphan who has Tourette's. He and three of his fellow orphans are taken under the wing of Frank Minna, a small-time hustler with mob connections. Lionel hero worships the sharply dressed smooth talking Frank. Eventually Frank sets up a detective agency but something very bad happens to him and Lionel has to discover who did it.

This is a novel that ticks all the boxes. It's full of suspense, rife with great plot twists, fabulously writt
Ian "Marvin" Graye
The Manic Choreography of a Motherless Brooklyn Boy

In 1979, Frank Minna plucked Lionel Essrog and three fellow orphans from St Vincent's Home for Boys in downtown Brooklyn, and fashioned them all into a workforce for a car service business and then a private detective agency. They call themselves the Minna Men.

Lionel has Tourette's syndrome. His tics include a kind of word association that is, at times, either amusing or insightful. This is how Lionel explains it:

“Though I collected words
Jun 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Lethem is a master at hip, funny, serious, genre mash-up fiction, and this (IMHO) is his best so far. It's a soft-hearted, hard-boiled, Zen-infused, satirical noir, narrated by a small-time detective with Tourette's. Thankfully this doesn't come across as gimmicky, which it would in less capable hands. The narrator, Lionel Essrog (now there's a Pynchonesque name), uses his condition to think about, well, language itself, as his outbursts often riff on what they're supposed to convey. Sure, the p ...more
3 Stars for Motherless Brooklyn (audiobook) by Jonathan Lethem read by Geoffrey Cantor.

I think this could have been at least a 4 star book for me if it had been half as long. Listening to 10 hours of Tourette’s is a bit much.
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

3.5 Stars

Motherless Brooklyn is told from Lionel Essrog’s perspective. An orphan residing in the St. Vincent’s Home for Boys in Brooklyn, Essrog and a handful of others ranging from 13-15 are picked up by local hood Frank Minna as day workers for his local “delivery company.” Fast-forward 15 years and those same boys are assistants for Minna’s “detective agency” . . . . . and Minna is dead. What follows is Lionel’s attempt to discover
Mattia Ravasi
Aug 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Video-review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-uWL...
#3 in my Top 20 Books I Read in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIWkw...

Long story short: possibly the best detective novel ever written, certainly one of the best novels of the last twenty years. A beautifully orchestrated hard-boliled story that smells of pavement, incense and White Castle burgers, one that manages to be mercilessly real, breath-takingly beautiful and deeply deeply emotional. And don't make me start on the narrator be
Nov 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobook, 2019, botn
3.5 Stars
What a unique interpretation of a mystery novel featuring an amateur detective with Tourettes.

Lionel Essorg grew up in St Vincent's Home for orphans and quickly gets in with a group of Italian guys, with Frank Minna playing the father figure. Frank has a car service company and a secret detective agency within. Frank unexpectedly gets stabbed and that leaves the misfit pack of orphans to figure out what happened. Lionel is such a well drawn character, and one you want to root for. I tr
I'd always planned on really loving this book, not sure why or how that started but it was probably when Fortress of Solitude came out and I really loved that (really loved the first half, anyway) and a bunch of people told me Motherless Brooklyn was even better. It sounded like something I'd like a lot, so I've tried every few years since then but could never make it in past the beginning. This time, though, I did, and read the whole thing pretty quickly and without too much groaning or whining ...more
Jan Rice
Jan 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing

And the third time's indeed the charm!
Read previously circa 2000 and again several years later. My first read, at least, was as an audiobook.

This is the tale of four punks and a hood
In Brooklyn, New York, tryin' to make good,
Mommyless orphanage, no Cub Scouts or den--
Instead, Mista Meanor made 'em his men.

Once they're abandoned, the center can't hold;
Our ticcy hero must be bold (or fold).

You follow the thread as the story unspools,
Learning who are the wise guys and who are the fools
And who,
Mar 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
Is Jonathan Lethem a genius? A virtuoso? (to use the terms used ad naus. in The Loser) I think not. Is Motherless Brooklyn a work of genius? Also no. But that doesn't mean it isn't still awesome.

Lethem's deconstruction of the detective novel is painfully obvious. He fashions his protagonist by stripping him of one of the most recognizable traits of the hard-boiled private eye--laconism. Lionel Essrog doesn't have a way with words; they have their way with him. Every time he questions someone to
Jun 12, 2009 rated it really liked it

Tell me to do it muffin ass …. to rest the lust of a loaftomb! …. Barnamum Pierogi lug!

Meet Lionel Essrog. Viable Guessfrog, Lionel Deathclam, Liable Guesscog, Ironic Pissclam. Lionel is a Minna Man. A full fledged Hardly Boy… A freakshow… A member of Motherless Brooklyn.

I love Lionel. Not in my special groupie way. Hold your hats here; I might be growing as a person. Nah. I just really love Lionel’s brain. Peirogi kumquat sushiphone! Domestic marshmallow ghost! Insatiable Mallomar!

Did I men
Dave Cullen
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of my four favorite books written in my adult lifetime--joining Jesus' Son, A Visit from the Goon Squad and A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories.

The writing is extraordinary, and something I aspire to. It's all so vivid, and the details capture little insights about this world and our world every other sentence. Just amazing.

Also, the story was thoroughly captivating--quite the page-turner.

The characters were really wonderful, too. I have to admit that when he introduced the narrat
Apr 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
Completely unexpected good read! Peeking into the mind of someone with Tourette's was fascinating but the rest of the story with its gritty and unsentimental look at the life of a Brooklyn hood was unexpectedly charming and moving at times. The bonus-- a mystery where black and white were often shaded by grays! Glad I read it-- would make an interesting book club read! ...more
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Golden Dagger winners seldom disappoint and Motherless Brooklyn won't break this trend. It's an unique spin on the PI genre with the detective Lionel Essrog suffering from Tourette syndrome. A gimmicky idea no doubt but one that is executed nearly flawlessly. I knew very little about Tourette and Lethem does a commendable job of putting the reader in Lionel's shoes.

Tourette comes with a manic OCD that gives Lionel more quirks and tics that an amateur actor trying their hand at method for the fir
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Every few months a book gets past my quality control screening. I ought to stop beating myself up over that fact. Generally I am happy to outsource my opinions about books not yet read to smarter people; I must have lapsed this time out, tempted by the $0.3333 price tag for a recognized yet unknown author with a sexy name. I had a strong desire to drop this text at page 30, but my inexperience with positively negative reviews naively committed myself to reading the whole damn thing merely for th ...more
Algernon (Darth Anyan)
Aug 10, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2022

Frank Minna is the secret king of Court Street. Frank Minna is a mover and a talker, a word and a gesture, a detective and a fool. Frank Minna c’est moi

A good hard-boiled novel needs a memorable location and a memorable detective, somebody to guide us through the intricacies of the plot in a first person narrative that is fast and captivating. The template has been established a long time ago, and explored by masters of the genre whose names are too well known to us fans to repeat here.
MJ Nicholls
Oct 23, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Read the novel, watched the film. Edward Norton’s long-brewed adaptation has a more interesting plot than Lethem’s, replacing the farcical intrigue with Japanese oligarchs and practitioners of Buddhist zazen meditation with a more narratively meaty tale of infrastructural racism based on the urban planning and slum-clearances of Robert Moses. Lethem’s novel is more hardboiled, nastier and scuzzier than Norton’s occasionally breezy throwback noir, with the protagonist Lionel more browbeaten, outc ...more
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NYLS Book Club : November Book of the Month 2 9 Nov 30, 2019 08:19AM  
Screen & Page: Motherless Brooklyn 1 2 Sep 28, 2019 12:52PM  

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Jonathan Allen Lethem (born February 19, 1964) is an American novelist, essayist and short story writer.

His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel t

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“Insomnia is a variant of Tourette's--the waking brain races, sampling the world after the world has turned away, touching it everywhere, refusing to settle, to join the collective nod. The insomniac brain is a sort of conspiracy theorist as well, believing too much in its own paranoiac importance--as though if it were to blink, then doze, the world might be overrun by some encroaching calamity, which its obsessive musings are somehow fending off.” 218 likes
“Someday I'd change my name to Shut Up and save everybody a lot of time.” 26 likes
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