Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $23.95)

Get in touch with your inner freak and he will set you free. That's the message of Motherless

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Short Reviews

Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $23.95)

Get in touch with your inner freak and he will set you free. That's the message of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's fifth novel in as many years. The narrator, Lionel, is as freakish as they come. He sputters obscenities, strokes strangers' shoulders, and obsessively taps doors and tabletops. His habits aren't willfully weird, but the result of Tourette's syndrome, the brain disorder that causes uncontrollable mental, verbal, and physical tics. This is fertile ground for the language-loving author, who twists the plainest dialogue into unexpected, nonsensical, sometimes obscene mantras running unbidden through Lionel's brain. Growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage in the early '70s, Lionel is just another outcast acting out. His ailment remains undiagnosed until low-level wise guy Frank Minna passes along a book called Understanding Tourette's Syndrome. The charismatic, pompadoured hood shows up at St. Vincent's Home for Boys looking for able-bodied laborers. He ends up with Lionel, whom he affectionately nicknames "The Human Freakshow," and three of his schoolmates: chubby, not-too-bright Gilbert; proud, bullying Tony; and handsome, laconic Danny. Over the next 20 years, the boys grow into "Minna Men." They dress like Frank, talk like Frank, and do Frank's bidding. Under cover of a storefront car service (whose standard phone greeting is "No cars") they run what they call a detective agency. They deliver packages, follow people, stake out buildings, and smoke a lot of cigarettes. Frank never reveals what these errands have to do with his "investigations." Then one day he winds up stabbed and dumped in a rubbish bin. The Minna Men finally have a real case. Lionel throws himself into the hunt for Frank's killer. His Tourette's becomes a Trojan horse, masking his perceptive mind with a compulsive, kooky exterior so he can wander unheeded in enemy territory. Though his addled brain has always seen conspiracy in the smallest coincidences— "wheels within wheels," as Minna sarcastically puts it—Lionel discovers that he barely imagined the real web of unspoken rules and alliances that entangled his dead mentor. Lethem excels at this kind of absurdist detective yarn, as he proved with his debut, the Chandleresque sci-fi novel Gun, With Occasional Music. Like any good fiction, however, Motherless Brooklyn transcends genre. Modern-day New York may be a big change from the post-apocalyptic and interplanetary settings of his previous work (Girl in Landscape, Amnesia Moon) but Lethem creates such compelling characters, it doesn't matter whether they're prowling through brownstones or another solar system. Yet these Brooklyn streets have their own surrealistic sheen; amid the neighborhood stoop-sitters lurk kumquat-gobbling giants and Japanese gangster-Buddhists. In Lethem's weird, brutal, and sometimes glorious world, everyone's a freak—some are just better at hiding it. Jackie McCarthy Slapboxing With Jesus

by Victor D. LaValle (Vintage, $11)

Even though short story collections are again gaining currency in the book world, LaValle's stands out by its refusal to play by the rules. His stories narrate the life of a boy growing up in New York's less glamorous boroughs, Queens and the Bronx, and they are tough and surprising by turns. His narrators live in a limbo of cognitive dissonance between their articulate minds and the language of the streets. Often, they know more than they say and keep the knowledge to themselves despite the results: heartbreak, violence, near- insanity, and, ultimately, denial. "ghost story" reveals the narrator's instability delicately, by degrees, and the final unveiling is as stark and ugly as the real world after a particularly nice dream. Rob, the young prostitute of "slave," works hard not to know the kind of world he has created for himself. No doubt LaValle will be compared to Junot Diaz, and perhaps accused of covering similar ground, as if one book or one writer could account for a whole culture's experience. Not every story is a high point, but LaValle's strength is his control of language, which roves easily from the street to the odd world of the mind: "I kept turning my head," the narrator of "ghost story" says, "the sounds bounced around my body, leafing through my bastard anatomy like I was a book of poems." Emily Hall Dreaming Under a Ton of Lizards

by Marian Michener (Spinsters Ink, $12)

Marian Michener's debut work of fiction, a mere 139 pages, just barely escaped categorization as a novella. Although the book mainly concerns itself with the universal subject of self-realization, the sexuality and struggles with alcohol of Olivia, the troubled protagonist, assure this novel a quick passage to the far corner of Barnes & Noble. Moreover, the plot sounds like an echo of books already written: Olivia flees her alcoholic girlfriend Brooke to seek solace in an isolated writer's life on the Oregon Coast. After numerous alcohol-soaked thoughts about her childhood crush, Judith, and repeated dreams haunted by Sister Wine, Olivia heads south to San Francisco, hot on the heels of her ex-lover. Following repeated memories of her alcoholic husband Malcolm, a falling out with still-drunk Brooke, and a new friendship with the clean and sober Kathleen, Olivia braves the long, hard road to sobriety and self-knowledge. What distinguishes this novel and makes it somewhat reminiscent of Dorothy Allison's Trash is its prose. The writing behind Olivia's first-person narrative recognizes the raw spots and sharp corners of life and interprets them, thus enabling Olivia to survive through sheer imagination. Dogs approach Olivia "like a velvet tide"; a woman laughs "like she had broken glass in her throat." Just as concentrating on the fundamental detail of breathing helps pull Olivia away from alcoholism, so do the nuances of Michener's language save this book from mediocrity. David Massengill Headlong

by Michael Frayn (Metropolitan Books, $26)

I became a Michael Frayn fan a few years ago when I read The Trick of It, his wicked satire on writers and their groupies. In it, he successfully skewers the same type of man skewered before by the likes of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge: the middle-aged British man, boring, academic, rather too enamored of his own talents. He does so again in his new novel, Headlong, with Martin Clay, a London philosopher changing careers midstream who has retreated to the country with his wife and infant daughter to write the book that will establish him—after his previous false starts—as an art scholar. In the way of this noble goal, Frayn throws an obstacle so irresistible that any aspiring art scholar would drop everything in its pursuit. The obstacle in question is a painting currently being used by Martin's boorish (but possibly rich) neighbors, the Churts, as a soot collector. Martin is convinced at first sight that the work is a long-lost treasure, in fact a Bruegel, and he sets out to prove it, risking life, limb, wife, daughter, and many other things in the process. Short-listed for this year's Booker Prize, Headlong is an odd jumble of a book, culling together elements of satire, farce, and intellectual thriller. Martin's search for proof of the painting's provenance takes him through the flourishing trade and culture of 16th-century Netherlands, and the country's subsequent strangling at the hands of a reborn Spanish Inquisition. It also takes him from library to library, from London to the country and back, as well as from lie to bigger lie, as he attempts to keep the work's possible value from the ignorant Churts and to acquire it for himself. Of course his plans go catawampus; a few frantic scenes later—including a car chase, a (rationalized) burglary, and a deal with a slightly shady art dealer—and we are left to muse on the larger question Frayn has put to Martin, and to us: What is worth risking everything for? Although this is certainly a good book, Frayn's mix of genres doesn't necessarily serve him well, presenting a problem in pacing as great wedges of European history and religious iconography interrupt the sleuthing and farce. But Frayn's humor is (as the British say) "spot on"; it holds the novel together when disparate elements threaten to pull it apart. Emily Hall Troubled Lovers in History

poems by Albert Goldbarth (Ohio State University Press, $18.95)

Goldbarth's newest collection is a hilarious, often touching meditation on the failure of his marriage. Like scientists seeking a Supertheory for random events, husband and wife wanted a curative Grand Explanation of their woes. These poems gather Goldbarth's miscellaneous data from his ransacking of pre-history, post-Einsteinian hyperspace, Lin Foo's Chinese Carryout, and an old theory that an element called septon is the cause of cancer, leprosy, scurvy, and ringworm. He finds some patterns. Thanks to Wilhelm and Bertha R�en's discovery of X-rays, Goldbarth sees into the R�ens' marriage and concludes that everyone (especially one's spouse) has a weird, secret beauty ("In"). Scenes from a contemporary couple's first try at cohabitation alternate with snippets from Marco Polo on Chinese practices "which are not our way," "which we do not do here"—one of the lovers is learning that the other is actually a complete foreigner ("Two Weeks, with Polo Chorus"). But no partner is more mystifying than oneself, when "every 'me' has a zip-out not-me lining" ("True"). Not surprisingly, then, surprises pop up everywhere. Consider the diamond-string-like pupil of a gecko's eye, consider trompe l'oeil art, neurosurgery, beer, Cousin Deedee! No wonder the ancient writer Pliny believed in a mouthless race of people nourished by fragrances ("Natural History"). No wonder we believe our marriage might survive "and stars will sing of this/to starfish, in the language that they share/because they share a shape." Goldbarth yanks us right into his brilliant, encyclopedic streams of compulsive talk. Like Pliny, he'll "feed us any gee-whiz scrap of balderdash/and he won't go away," and I, for one, am glad. Judy Lightfoot Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time

by Paul Rogat Loeb (St. Martin's Press/Griffin, $15.95)

Paul Loeb wants you to get involved. Throughout Soul of a Citizen the associate scholar at Seattle's Center for Ethical Leadership encourages, cajoles, and gently pushes his reader toward embracing activism and working for community change. Loeb is careful not to lapse into scholarly detachment: Each argument is illustrated by a real-life story of a different friend, acquaintance, or other activist figure. By associating a name and face with each point, he avoids a preachy tone even when he is preaching—about why you should get involved, how you can avoid burnout and cynicism, and why former activists should return to the fold. The largely local cast of characters presented should be especially engaging to Pacific Northwest readers. It includes folks whose names who might recognize, including centenarian environmentalist Hazel Wolf and City Council member Nick Licata, and friends you haven't yet met, such as South Seattle businessman Chris Kim—who not only forgave a youth he caught shoplifting, but later offered him a job—and fisherman Pete Knutson, who successfully led the battle to defeat anti-commercial fishing state Initiative 640. But these local examples are scattered among enough diverse characters, locations, and situations to give the book national appeal. The altruistic spirit and cheerful tone of Soul of a Citizen almost make one feel guilty about adding a few caveats. But here they are anyway: This is a book you can put down; Loeb's dense stories and lessons are best digested in small doses, so you'd better bring a bookmark. Also, this Citizen would have benefited from a substantial trim—the author's gentle style and his habit of tipping the reader off to his next point makes this book a bit overlong at 350 pages. James Bush

 
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