White Boy Walking
When Jonathan Lethem was born, in 1964, his mother had dropped out of college and was piercing ears with a pin and ice-cube in Greenwich Village, where she ran with a crowd of folksingers including Tuli Kupferberg, Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs. His father, in an early phase of his career as an artist, was painting basketball hoops, vices and stereopticons. After a time the family settled in a neighbourhood to the south of downtown Brooklyn, where young whites were buying brownstones on the cheap.
As a child, Lethem was devoted to Marvel comics, science fiction, The Twilight Zone and Star Wars. His first four novels, which explored and extended the bounds of sci-fi, owe a large debt to Philip K. Dick. Lethem even sold the author’s estate ‘a few dozen’ paperback copies of out-of-print titles they didn’t have, so that the executor could seek their republication. ‘Vulcan’s Hammer, in other words, is sort of my fault,’ Lethem once wrote.
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) owes far less to Dick but, like its predecessor Girl in Landscape (1998), it suggests the long shadow of Lethem’s mother’s death from cancer when he was 14. The narrator grew up in an orphanage in downtown Brooklyn that doesn’t exercise much supervision, much less a psychological hold, over its teenage charges. That’s left to Frank Minna, a low-level dealer in stolen goods who later sets up a detective agency disguised as a taxi service. Four of the five white boys in the home are hired by Minna for $20 and a beer a day to move cargo around without asking questions.
‘Yeah, well, you’re all freaks, if you don’t mind me pointing it out,’ Minna tells the kids. ‘No parents – or am I mixed up?’ But their affection for him is palpable. When he is knifed in the stomach years later, two of the boys, now in their late twenties, find him in a dumpster before he dies: ‘“Wanna get me out of here?” He coughed, burbled, rolled his eyes at me. “Wanna give me a hand? I mean, no sooner than the muse strikes.”’
Lethem has played with wiseguy talk throughout his career, most notably in his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994). In a dystopian Oakland of the near future, Conrad Metcalf, a private eye and narrator descended from Philip Marlowe, goes to see the estranged wife of a client who’s been killed: ‘I think you’re in a little deeper than you say … Now you want very much for me to leave with the impression that you co-operated. Which makes two of us. Only problem is, I’m wearing a bullshit-proof vest.’
The orphan narrator of Motherless Brooklyn is a more unusual kind of wiseguy: Lionel Essrog has Tourette’s syndrome. Language assaults him. Coming across a business called Yorkville Zendo sends him on a riff: ‘Don’t know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me!’ The wordplay is often wildly witty, but there is an undertone that is less exuberant. Through Lionel, Lethem dramatises, sometimes ostentatiously, the profound obstacles to communication – the wall between self and other, the rattle of consciousness – that confront everyone: ‘I remembered mishearing Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus as a child. Barnamum Bailey. Like Osmium, Cardamom, Brainium, Barnamum, Where’smymom … Not now, I begged my Tourette’s self. Think about it later.’
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