In the novel Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, the readers get to explore the life of an outcast with the daily struggle of Tourette’s. The main character, Lionel, works for a detective agency run by Frank Minna who serves as a father figure. After the tragic event of Frank Minna being murdered Lionel is determined to catch the killer at any cost. Whether this never ending bender of vengeance leads him to turn his back on everyone and lost trust for his own family. Throughout the novel we get to see two sides of Lionel, which are the low self-esteem side and the courageous side. In this essay I will be analyzing the contradictions of Lionel’s character through the use of his self-esteem issues and his courage to pursue the chase to find Minna’s killer. Finally, I will be discussing what actor I believe would be best to portray the strange and peculiar image of Lionel Essrog.
At first in the novel we learn about Lionel’s past and receive various indications of how the main character sees himself. Lionel grew up in a foster home and was later adopted by Minna, along with some other boys in need of a home. He was always the outcast whether it be at the foster home or at school. His tourette’s was always something that got in the way or caused him to be judged or scrutinized by others around him. Never being fully accepted by his surroundings has caused him to perhaps feel worse about himself. Afterall, Minna’s nickname for Lionel has always been “freakshow”, which in itself is insulting enough to make you want to question your own self-worth. The first few passages of the book help to illustrate his views around his identity. Lionel first describes himself as the following, “I am a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk of filibuster. I’ve got touretter’s” (1). The chapter does no begin with Lionel describing his appearance but rather how he is his own disease and nothing more. Another passage later on gives us more depth into how the character perceives himself to be. The passage reads as follows, “I became a walking joke, preposterous, improbable, unseeable. My outbursts, utterances and tappings were white noise or static, irritating but tolerated (…) I wasn’t tough, provocative, stylish, self-destructive, sexy (…) I was merely crazy” (84). The readers get the true sense of Lionel’s lack of self-esteem as he continues to describe himself throughout the book as some kind of freak, loner and unaccepted person who remains in the shadows of those around him. Yet, as I will discuss later on, the reader’s are taken a back by Lionel’s courage to prevail through his self doubt.
In addition, the readers are able to see the character push through his Tourette’s and gather up the courage to pursue the chase for finding Frank Minna’s killer. Although the character has described himself only in the negative light and continues to discuss his Tourette’s as some sort of curse he never seems to allow it to hold him back when it comes to investigating the murder. His tics can be debilitating and hard to control, an example is when he heard the news of Minna’s passing. Lionel began to shout out some verbal tics and even began tapping the doctors shoulder and fixing his collar (34). Picturing this gives the reader a sense of embarassment seeing as a grown man is touching and playing with a doctors wardrobe like a little frustrated infant. However, these embarassing and random outbursts do not seem to hinder his ability to continue his courages terrain. An example is when he is being investigated by a detective and continues the conversation in trying to stear the police officer away although he never knows what he might say. When speaking with the investigator Lionel began to blurt out a bunch of random pieces of information that do not quite add up and finally blurts out the utterances of “fuckmeblackcop” (112). This is a good example of how although his tourette’s can be hurtful and raise a little hell, he still has one goal in mind and refuses to let that stand in the way. Another concrete example of Lionel’s courage, despite his low self-esteem, is when he confront his adoptive brother Tony about Minna’s murder. He begins to question Tony and his involvement in the case after accusing Minna of being two different people. Shortly after Tony pulls out a gun in order to gain some dominance over the conversation, Lionel decides to still test his patience with a sarcastic remark. Tony begins waving the gun around, most people would try to comply, Lionel decides to test Tony by saying “I supposed it was the smart Frank Minna who taught you to wave guns around” (184). Although he claims to dislike himself and sees himself as nothing more than his Tourette’s and sees it as a weakness yet he can push through and find this courage to get the answers he needs. The true example of Lionel’s courage is when he is seated in the same room as the Fujisaki members. Fujisaki was the murderous group that order the kill on Frank Minna, they were very dangerous men that people should not cross. However, this did not stop him from entering the room and having verbal tics explode the room. Shortly after courageously speaking with the members of Fujisaki he begins to tic and does not stop until he is escorted out of the room after shouting “fuck me Fujisaki” to the whole room (279). This was very courageous considering he was supposed to play it cool and was not supposed to let Fujisaki know he knows who they are. However, he seems some calm and relaxed the whole time as if he it truly fearless and just wants to achieve his goal of finding the killer.
Finally, the actor I would choose in order to portray the image of Lionel Essrog’s character would have to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. I believe that this actor would be able to play Lionel’s character beautifully because he always does extra research in order to understand and be able to play the character. This is why I believe that Leonardo would be able to play this character with very good detail because he enjoys learning more about the characters struggles to get a better glimpse of how to play the character. Another reason why I chose Leonardo DiCaprio is for his amazing performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? He did such an outstanding performance that when it came to the time of awards many of the interviewers thought that he was actually Autistic. I feel like he would be able to get the verbal and physical tics down to a tee.
In conclusion, Lionel Essrog is a character I feel everyone can relate to, this sense of self-doubt and lack of self-esteem but always being able to rise to the occasion. This character speaks to the readers in an interesting way, causing one to re-evaluate their perceptions of themselves and perhaps see things in a better light. Many people would like to have the ability to accept their illnesses and still thrive to succeed no matter what setbacks are up ahead. Lionel has what we all contain as readers a little bit of negative self-talk and a lot of courage. Life is a long road of the unknown but Lionel has taught us not to dwell and allow the negative sides to anchor you down but rather push through and never give up. Or as Lionel would say “Put an egg in your shoe and beat it. Make like a tree and leave. Tell your story walking” (311).
Lethem, Jonathan.Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.