Lionel Essrog is an outstanding protagonist for this literary crime novel - he's a detective who has Tourettes Syndrome (I'm a total sucker for the honorable yet flawed detective type).Lionel's constant Tourettic impulses give the author an excuse to recklessly play with language and explore his character's relationship with words in a way that would seem really pedantic and self-indulgent in a novel with a less structured plot.
This novel is true and amazing "literary crime fiction" and in my opinion has the best of both of these worlds: Lethem's detective genre plotting saves this novel from being the literary slog of some of his other works (The Fortress of Solitude comes to mind), while the more cranial musings on the nature of Tourettes and the high quality of the writing elevate this to more than a mere who-dun-it. I feel like I have a greater understanding of what it's like to have Tourettes, and was even a bit jealous at times that I didn't have it. (I'm very susceptible to these kinds of feelings - sort of like a hypochondriac - I started shouting silly and lewd words and tapping my friends equally on both shoulders while I was reading this book). There are scenes where Lionel is hiding, or needs to be unassuming, and the tension is even higher than usual here because you just know he's going to tic and blow his cover.
The other aspect I really enjoyed about this novel was the setting. It's set in Brooklyn, and because I've biked all over the northern part of the borough I was familiar with many landmarks. For example, there's this great scene in the beginning of the novel where Lionel is tailing his boss, Frank Minna. Minna's in a car with a dangerous man, and he's wearing a wire so Lionel can hear what's going on while he's following them. However, Minna's car loses Lionel, so Minna tries to give Lional unsuspecting clues as to their location. The first one comes right after they've passed through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and Minna mouths off about Polish pierogies. Lionel is stumped, and I'm practically jumping on the couch, shouting at the book, "the Polanski bridge! He's going across the Polanski! Get 'em Lionel!" (The Polanski is a small, rather unimpressive bridge connecting Long Island City to Greenpoint (Queens to Brooklyn) which I've biked across countless times on my way to Prospect Park from my old apartment in Astoria). There were a few more moments like these where the characters were stumped but I was not. As a reader, I cherish these small moments of victory.
One very small disappointment: the title, Motherless Brooklyn, refers to Lionel and his fellow detectives, all orphans that Frank Minna took under his wing and trained. In a short but touching dinner scene Frank tells his mother, "This is exciting for you Ma? I got all of motherless Brooklyn up here for you. Merry Christmas." Anyhow, throughout the novel Lionel calls the three different Essrogs in the Brooklyn phone book, flirting with the idea that one of them is his family. However, this thread is never flushed out.Overall, this was an entertaining and enlightening read - one that I highly recommend to those who like mysteries (especially Raymond Chandler fans - the novel gives The Big Sleep some shout outs), and readers with a more literary bend.