Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I’d have to be Mumbles.)
Thus begins the comic, frenetic, life-affirming, heart-breaking account of an unlikely private eye from Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog. Our detective is driven by his obsessive mind and his equally obsessive need to discover who murdered his boss/mentor/protector Frank Minna.
The Minna men are officially a car service, but they don’t drive anyone anywhere. Instead, they keep tabs of the goings on around Brooklyn for their only clients—two wealthy and well-connected Italians. When Minna is stabbed to death, Lionel must take over operations to get to the bottom of what happened. Unfortunately, others in the organization have their own designs, either to take Frank’s place or to keep Lionel from making matters worse. Lionel must find out what happened to Frank—even if it kills him.
Following the number two in line, Tony, Lionel discovers the plot runs deep, deeper than Frank Minna’s unfaithful wife, deeper than the wealthy clients, even deeper than Brooklyn itself—and it somehow involves uni, a Japanese delicacy, and Frank’s mysterious brother, Gerard, who is now posing as a Zen master.
While the novel has been described as a post-modern hard-boiled detective novel, it doesn’t devolve into self-indulgent deconstruction. (I’m looking at you, Pynchon.) Rather, Lethem plays it straight. Lionel Essrog’s motivations remain genuine: he wants to know what happened to Frank and in the end he finds out. Post-modern elements pervade the narrative—from Lionel’s inability to communicate at times and the esoteric, multi-cultural conspiracy at the heart of Frank’s murder—but at no point do they bogart the literal unraveling of the mystery. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To this reader, at least, the ending feels satisfying and earned.
This a perfect novel for fans of the off-kilter mystery, for students of post-modernism, or for readers looking for a hard-boiled detective novel with a contemporary twist.