Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's 1999 winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, remains a hell of a read over a decade after its original publication. Unlike award winners that lose steam with every passing year, Lethem's graft of literary fiction on genre fiction in infused with the kind of creative vitality that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts even when those parts stand that cliché testing of time quite well on their own. This is not a case of a genre writer with literary pretensions, not that there's anything wrong with that. Think instead of those writers who have take genre fiction and pushed it into something else entirely. Think what a Philip K. Dick did with science fiction, think Cormac McCarthy and the western.
Lionel Essrog, Lethem's narrator, suffers from Tourette's syndrome and obsessive compulsive behaviors and consistently demonstrates the effects of these disorders throughout the novel. Using this highly original narrative voice, reminiscent in some sense of Faulkner, Lethem takes the reader for a post-modern ride through the world of the detective story. The tics of Tourette's become a metaphor for the conventions of the detective genre. Just as the Tourette's sufferer has no choice but to give in to the tic, the genre writer has no choice but to obey the conventions. "Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag," and the sufferer is it. When you're it, you have no choice but to tag back. "Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer.
Lionel tells the story of how he and three other boys from a Brooklyn orphanage are commandeered by Frank Minna, a local hood in the making, to work for him loading and unloading trucks, until one day he mysteriously disappears from the scene, only to return two years later with a wife and a new scheme. Now he and the boys are to be a detective agency disguised as a car service. All this comes by way of back story, after the novel opens with Lionel and one of the others on a stake out backing up Frank as he enters a Manhattan building on business. When Frank leaves in the company of a large man, a man Lionel insists is a Polish giant, only to end up in a dumpster, Lionel compulsively takes it upon himself to find out what's going on.