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Motherless Brooklyn


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Book Review

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem follows Detective Lionel Essrog, who grieves the death of his corrupt employer and wants to find the person who killed his boss.

Plot Summary

Lionel Essrog grew up at St. Vincent’s Home for Boys in Brooklyn. The orphan’s life was never easy, especially in light of his Tourette syndrome. Even as an adult, he twitches, blurts out erratic words and phrases, and can’t control his obsessive-compulsive habits.

When Lionel was a young teen, a criminal entrepreneur named Frank Minna began borrowing him and three of his schoolmates as laborers. Lionel, Tony, Gilbert and Danny eventually became Minna Men, driving for Minna’s “car service.” The business was a cover for Minna’s detective agency and illegal activities. The boys revered Frank for saving them from a life on the streets.

Lionel and the others still work for Frank 15 years later, when unseen enemies stab the boss. Lionel and Gilbert, who have been following Frank to protect him, rush their boss to the hospital. Lionel urges him to name his attacker, but Frank only offers a riddle before dying on the operating table. Police stalk the Minna Men for information, and Frank’s wife, Julia, skips town.

Tony prepares to take over Minna’s business, and Lionel senses his old classmate is untrustworthy. Lionel gets a call from two older mobsters, Matricardi and Rockaforte, whom Frank served and feared for years. The boss only referred to them as The Clients. They ask Lionel to find Julia for them.

Lionel is determined to learn who murdered Frank. He discovers that Frank’s brother, Gerard, lives in town and is posing as a Zen master. While Gerard genuinely embraces Buddhism, he is also in league with an underhanded Japanese company called Fujisaki.

Lionel visits Gerard’s Zen meditation hall to spy on the man. There, he meets and falls for a student named Kimmery. Since The Clients are hunting Gerard for cheating them years earlier, Lionel tells them where to find him.

Lionel learns Julia may be at a Zen retreat center in Maine. Tony drives to Maine, trailed by Gerard’s henchman, whom Lionel calls The Giant. Lionel follows them both at a distance. In Maine, Lionel finds Julia working at a restaurant. The Giant kills Tony and pursues Lionel. Lionel traps The Giant and tells the police where to find the henchman.

Lionel talks more with Julia and pieces things together. Frank and Gerard stole from Fujisaki, just as they had cheated The Clients years before. Fujisaki found out they were being cheated, but they thought Frank alone was the thief. They told Gerard to get rid of Frank as a show of good faith, so he hired The Giant to kill his brother. Lionel tries to get Julia to come back to Brooklyn with him, but she refuses.

Back in Brooklyn, Danny takes over Frank’s business, but runs it as a legitimate taxi service with Gilbert’s and Lionel’s help. Gerard is found dead at the meditation hall, and Kimmery goes back to her old boyfriend after Lionel’s obsessive behavior proves too invasive.

Christian Beliefs

A Quaker family fosters Tony for a while and considers adopting him.

Other Belief Systems

Several characters follow Buddhist practices. Kimmery tells Lionel that God isn’t part of Zen Buddhism. Fujisaki men pose as Buddhist monks. Despite Gerard’s underhanded dealings, he is sincere about his Buddhist practices.

Authority Roles

Although Frank starts out exploiting Lionel and the boys, he develops an affection for them and takes care of them. Gerard takes his brother out of town when The Clients are hunting them. He kills Frank to save himself. The Clients and men of Fujisaki are powerful criminals who remorselessly punish anyone who crosses them.

Profanity & Violence

The n-word is used. The Lord’s name is used in vain. Other words including s—, the f-word, a–, b–tard, d–n, d–k, h—, crap and screw appear frequently. Lionel often says, “Eat me” and uses profanity. Some of these words erupt as part of Lionel’s Tourette syndrome, but he and other characters often use them purposely.

Sexual Content

Frank believes homosexual men are harmless reminders of the impulses that lurk in all men. He says it’s worse to be half a f-g than a whole one. He also tells the boys that lesbians deserve respect, as they are wise and mysterious. Frank often brags about his conquests with women and makes sexually suggestive moves on them in public. He has pornographic calendars in his warehouse.

Frank suggests to Lionel and the other boys that he knows their parents, and he talks about the different neighborhood girls getting knocked up. When a Quaker family temporarily fosters Tony, Frank tells the boys about the private school girls he has fondled and penetrated.

The Quaker family kicks out Tony when they find him in bed with their 16-year-old daughter. When Gilbert starts doing a lot of masturbating, he regularly asks about Lionel’s self-touching habits. He even makes Lionel masturbate in front of him.

Julia puts Lionel’s hands on her breasts, and he reveals that sex calms his Tourette outbursts. Julia says she has slept with a lot of people, including Frank, Gerard and all of the Minna Men but Lionel. Lionel and Kimmery have sex. The text details the scene, including their discussion about Lionel’s misshapen penis. In these contexts, words including tit and orgasm also appear.

Discussion Topics


Additional Comments

Prejudice: Frank shares prejudices and opinions about people from many different ethnic groups and sexual orientations. He chooses white kids as his henchmen to satisfy his clients’ (and his own) prejudices.

Bullying: Different characters refer to Lionel with names like freak, crazy, stupid and beast.

Alcohol: Frank buys the underage boys beer every time they do a job for him.

Movie Tie-In: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare this book review with Plugged In’s movie review for Motherless Brooklyn.

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