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Literature / Motherless Brooklyn

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Motherless Brooklyn is a postmodern novel by Jonathan Lethem which tells the tale of Lionel Essrog, low level gangster/detective extraordinare, 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 in a mysterious meeting gone wrong, Lionel takes it upon himself to solve the crime. Taking his cues from hardboiled 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 Kimmery, 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 loose film adaptation, reimagined with a 1950s setting and directed, written by and starring Edward Norton as Lionel, spent 20 years going through Development Hell, but was eventually made and released on November 1st, 2019.


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  • Gayngster: Two mob bosses are caught unaware holding hands, quickly withdrawn once they know they're being watched.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.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: The flashbacks to Lionel's childhood, especially the scene with the penguins.
  • 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.
  • Advertisement:
  • 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.
  • Neighborhood-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.
  • Parental Substitute: Frank Minna to his men.
  • Postmodernism: 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 Minna; also between the various Minna Men and Julia, except the Minnas 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.