If you've studied literature, you know that narratives haven't always been populated with fully rounded people. For quite a long time, writers filled their works with flat characters either due to their relative unimportance in the plot or to emphasize universal qualities or out of some allegorical or archetypal impulse. But in the past century or two, the proverbial pendulum has swung the other way, and complex, realistic characters have become badges of authorial excellence. And if you can make them grotesque or bizarre and still remain that verisimilitude, well, let the kudos rain down. That's just what Jonathan Lethem has done in Motherless Brooklyn, a murder mystery with one of the oddest and best-realized detectives you've ever encountered.
See, ever since he was a child at St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog has had this problem, like he'll get something into his head, an odd phrase—loud maze! found days! pound haze!—and he'll have to riff on it for a while, or maybe a number, like six, let's pick six, and he'll have to do everything six times, like straighten your lapels or tap you on the shoulder or maybe kiss you, and Lionel can't help it, because he has Tourette's, it's a disorder, a compulsion to do all those things and maybe throw in the occasional—eatmebailey!—obscenity from time to time, but Lionel has a new compulsion, because he's a Minna Man, an associate of Frank Minna, small-time fence and only father figure Lionel has ever had, except Minna just got himself stabbed repeatedly in the gut and tossed in a dumpster, and Lionel doesn't know why, but he knows he can't stop until he finds the person responsible for his death.
Though Motherless Brooklyn is ostensibly crime fiction, it goes a little light on the "crime" part. Yes, there's murder, an investigation, arrests, high-speed chases, a ruthless Japanese syndicate, a brutal pistol whipping, a pair of aging Mafiosi and tense stand offs over leveled weapons. But these compose only about one-half of the running time. The rest gets dedicated to developing Lionel, which would normally disappoint a genre lover such as myself. But Lethem carries it off with such skill that I have a difficult time offering anything but admiration. Lionel could've remained a joke, a one-note gag, an invention better suited for sitcoms than a full-length novel. In Lethem's hands, though, he moves from humorous to poignant and surprisingly intelligent. The piling on of personal detail does get a bit much at times. (Did I really need to know about the odd shape of Lionel's genitalia? I think not.) Still, the overall effect is impressive. This Brooklyn has got character.
(Picture: CC 2009 by kaneda99; Hat Tip: B. Nagel)