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Literature: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is a postmodern novel by Jonathan Lethem which tells the tale of Lionel Essrog, low level gangster/detective extraordinary, afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome. Essrog works for Brooklyn Gangster Frank Minna, as one of his Minna Men, along with three boys he grew up with in a Brooklyn orphanage. When Frank is killed, Lionel takes it upon himself to solve the crime. Taking his ques from hard boiled detective films, Lionel finds himself making enemies of elderly mobsters and a zen Buddhist center. The mystery deepens when Lionel becomes involved with Minna's ex wife as well as Buddist practitioner Kim, and learns more about his old boss and father figure than he ever thought possible.

It's a sweet, exciting, kind of sad story that won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2000 Gold Dagger award for Crime fiction. A film adaptation (set in the 1950s) is planned to be released in 2013, directed, adapted and starring Edward Norton.


This novel provides examples of:

  • A Father to His Men: Frank Minna to Lionel, the rest of the Minna Men, at least at the start of their relationship.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Girard to Frank. Tony and Danny to Lionel and Gilbert.
  • The Don: Matricardi and Rockaforte. The two old men that Frank answers to.
  • The Family for the Whole Family: Frank certainly thinks of his Men, or at least Lionel, in this manner, not even allowing them to carry guns due to their incompetence.
  • Gayngster: Two mob bosses are caught unaware holding hands, quickly withdrawn once they know they're being watched.
  • Genre Savvy: Everyone. They all act as if they are part of a detective novel which... they are.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Lionel tries... and fails. It's adorkable!
  • Heartwarming Orphan: The flashbacks to Lionel's childhood, especially the scene with the penguins.
  • Hollywood Tourette's: Lionel actually has a pretty realistic depiction of Tourette's, focusing mainly on tics rather than the usual coprolalia.
  • In Love with the Gangster's Girl: Technically, Lionel and Frank's wife don't hook up until after his death but later it's revealed that Julia has had relations with every one of the Minna Men.
  • Jewish Mother: "Irving, when are you coming home?" The joke actually reveals the answer to the mystery of Frank Minna
  • Missing Mom: Every Minna Man.
  • Neighbourhood Friendly Gangsters: Frank obviously has good relations with the community he operates out of as he's able to go to the local orphanage to find new recruits.
  • New York City: Um... yeah.
  • Parental Substitute: Frank Minna to his men.
  • Post Modernism: It's a detective story about a man who's obsessed with detective stories. Each character is following a little script about how gangsters and detectives are supposed to act. When Frank Minna dies, Lionel's script begins to unravel.
  • Private Eye Monologue: Most of the book, sometimes hilariously with Lionel's eatmebailey! Fuckwit!taptaptap tourette's
  • Siblings in Crime: Frank and Gerard Minna. Also, while they aren't biologically related, all of the Minna Men.
  • Sibling Triangle: Between Frank, Julia and Girard Menna; also between the various Minna Men and Julia, except the Minna are emotional brothers rather than biological.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Verbal Tic: Lionel Essrog obviously, particularly with ""Eatmebailey""
  • "What Now?" Ending:So Lionel's solved Frank's murder but Kimmery leaves him, he doesn't know if he's imagined Ullman or not, the closest thing he has to a family has dispersed around him and his entire father/son relationship with Minna has been called into question kind of a downer actually.
  • Yakuza: at the end, when Lionel travels to Maine to confront Julia, the yakuza are rumored to have taken over the local fishing industry.
  • You Watch Too Much X: Tony accuses Lionel of learning everything he knows from old gangster movies and Frank Minna. Which Lionel admits is true.

Matthew Bartholomew ChroniclesCrime FictionMr Blank
Mostly HarmlessLiterature of the 1990sMother of Demons
Mommie DearestLit FicMother Night

alternative title(s): Motherless Brooklyn
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