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A Wild Ride Through Brooklyn.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Motherless Brooklyn" (Doubleday) by Jonathan Lethem, a mystery novel set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

05:22

Other segments from the episode on November 2, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 2, 1999: Interview with Desmond Tutu; Review of Jonathan Lethem's novel "Motherless Brooklyn."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 02, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: nap.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "No Future Without Forgiveness": An Interview With Desmond Tutu
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After two decades as one of South Africa's most outspoken opponents of apartheid, my guest, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It's mission was to provide as complete a picture as possible of the gross human rights violations under apartheid. Those guilty of violations who offered truthful confessions were considered for amnesty. The commission's final report was issued last fall. Now Tutu has a new book about the commission's work called "No Future Without Forgiveness."

Desmond Tutu won a 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting apartheid. He's the former Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, former archbishop of Cape Town, and he was the first black secretary general of the South African Council of Churches.

I asked him if he thinks the commission has achieved reconciliation in South Africa.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU, FORMER CHAIRMAN, SOUTH AFRICA'S TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION: It is important to remember that there was no way in which a commission sitting for only two or three years would be able to undo the ravages of not just 50 years of apartheid, but several centuries of colonial injustice and exploitation where people were alienated from one another.

But the commission has made a contribution and it is important perhaps to remember that the law under which we operated was entitled the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. It doesn't say the achievement, it says the promotion. And I think that the commission has gone a very long way towards contributing to a process which would need to involve all South Africans.

GROSS: In 1988 there was a massive bomb attack on the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, and this was while you were the general secretary of the council.

TUTU: No, no, no. I had already left and I was archbishop of Cape Town. The person who had succeeded me, who is now the chief of staff of President Mbeki, he was general secretary.

GROSS: OK. But it was still pretty close to home, because you had just left.

TUTU: (Unintelligible) yes.

GROSS: So the officials blamed the ANC for the attack, but you found out through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the police were behind it and that President Botha had actually personally given orders for this attack.

TUTU: This is -- this is what one of the applicants, a cabinet minister at the time who was in charge of the police, Mr. Flock (ph), in his application claims that the order to destroy (unintelligible) House, make it inoperable, came from the then state president, Mr. P.W. Botha.

GROSS: Now, you personally knew P.W. Botha, you had met with him before this attack on the...

TUTU: Yes.

GROSS: ... church headquarters. Did you see him after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings that revealed what had really happened, who had really given orders behind this attack, did you talk to him about that.

LAUGHTER

I'm thinking of reconciliation here.

TUTU: Yes, I in fact went to see him with many people attacking me for being so conciliatory. You know, we had subpoenaed him to appear before the commission. We wanted him to come and tell us his side of the story. We had heard so many allegations from not just low rank persons, but from fairly senior members of the security forces. And we wanted to hear from (unintelligible) the horse's mouth. And he refused to appear.

Actually, before we subpoenaed him, we decided that we would try the soft approach, which was that I went to see him in his retirement home, and we had a very amicable discussion, but he was quite adamant that none of the things of which he was accused he was guilty of.

GROSS: Do you believe him?

TUTU: No.

LAUGHTER

Of course not. No. I think of him that he's an irascible old man who believes certain things firmly and had a particular kind of character and temperament. You know, he didn't stand any opposition and they say he used to reduce many of his cabinet to tears in the way that he operated with them.

And so one quite understood that he would have a massive blind spot. He believed that he was doing the right thing, especially by the white people. And anything would -- there was nothing that would shake him from his belief.

He was very proud of the fact that he was seen as a granite man, immovable, totally immovable. Nothing, once he had taken a position, was likely to persuade him to shift.

GROSS: Did the idea of reconciliation feel any different to you as an aggrieved party than it felt to you as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

TUTU: It's difficult perhaps to make those distinctions because many of the aggrieved were sitting in front of me and I had a real empathy with them. I -- not even empathy, I mean, I could just as well have exchanged places with them. Many of the things that they were describing could so easily have happened to me or to people very close to me in my family.

But it was quite important that I sought to hold together the perpetrators, those who had benefited from the injustice and the oppression, to reach out to them in a way that would enable them to see that they were being given an opportunity, here was a window, a door being opened for them to enter as it were the next room, which would be the future of -- the kind of future where South Africans would be able to live amicably together.

And so I couldn't, as it were, remain in the position of the aggrieved. I also had to do all I could, as did my colleagues on the commission, to be those who sought to facilitate an engagement between the perpetrator and the victim.

GROSS: You write in your book that if you knew then what you know now you wouldn't have supported F.W. de Klerk sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. In fact, the Nobel Committee had called you and asked you for your opinion before presenting the Peace Prize to de Klerk.

TUTU: Yes.

GROSS: What was the new information that changed your mind?

TUTU: It wasn't so much in fact the information as his own kind of reaction to the facts that we had before us. Because we were not, even if we were appalled by the revelations, we knew that part of the price for a relatively peaceful transition from repression to democracy was going to have to be to accept that atrocities had been committed.

And let me add very quickly that atrocities were committed on all sides of our struggle, it wasn't just the apartheid government.

What riled me, what deeply distressed me, is not the fact of those revelations and disclosures, appalling as they might have been, distressing as they might have been. It was the fact of Mr. de Klerk's ultimately refusing to accept an accountability as the head of a government and of a party that had been responsible for a policy that made things of this sort possible.

GROSS: My guest is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And his new book is called "No Future Without Forgiveness." It's about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa which he chaired. He's also a 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Desmond Tutu. He's the former Archbishop of Cape Town. He chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and also won a 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. His new book is called "No Future Without Forgiveness."

The Truth and Reconciliation report not only detailed abuses by the government and the police...

TUTU: Yes.

GROSS: ... and the military, the courts, it also detailed some abuses by the ANC, the party that was strongest in its resistance against apartheid and is now the party in power in South Africa.

Now, you nearly resigned over one of the ANC's requests during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. What was it that you nearly resigned over?

TUTU: At one point the ANC said, because they were involved in a just struggle -- and, no, well, we certainly didn't quarrel with that understanding -- because they were involved in a just struggle, they therefore did not see any need for them to apply for amnesty.

And I said: Well, if you were going to give yourselves amnesty, why refuse the same privilege or right to the government? That you can't be the accused and be the prosecutor and be the judge in your own case. We have been set up as a commission to determine who have committed atrocities, who are entitled to amnesty and who not. And if you arrogate to yourselves the right to give yourselves amnesty, then sorry, I will not be able to continue with any integrity in this job and I will be ready to resign.

GROSS: The ANC, I mean, it's job in a way was to engage in an armed struggle against apartheid. Were you surprised by any of the ANC confessions about crimes that they committed?

TUTU: Look, they -- well, you know, we must say that they had to have engaged in an armed struggle. The armed struggle happened because of the intransigence of the government. The ANC actually started out being nonviolent in its approach, using conventional nonviolent methods, passive resistance and so on.

No, to answer your question. That is precisely why you have the criteria that are set out in relation to the just struggle or the just war. You shouldn't because you are pursuing a particular end which is a good end claim therefore that the end justifies the means. Your means must be consistent with your end.

And I'm not surprised. But, I mean, you've got to be saddened that there was torture, for instance, in the ANC camps.

They came along with the evidence because they had established a number of commissions which provided the commission, our commission, with very considerable evidence of human rights violations. Women members of the ANC were abused, and that was accepted as a fact, and they brought this before the commission.

GROSS: You mean women members of the ANC were abused by male members of the ANC?

TUTU: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Sexually abused?

TUTU: They -- well that was in one or two of their reports. And some of those women did come before the commission. We had special hearings. For instance, we had hearings for the newspapers. We had hearings for the judiciary. We had hearings for business. And we had hearings for women. And the -- some of the women who came to testify, told of what had happened to them at the hands of their comrades, in the camps especially.

GROSS: Now, you write in your book that you think Nelson Mandela's greatest flaw was his excessive loyalty to the ANC. Would you expound on that for us?

TUTU: Well, I've said that. I mean, in a way, it's a wonderful attribute that given his stature, he could have branched out on his own, on many issues. But he was very much a party man, who believed in consensus, and would wish to carry his comrades with him.

And my -- if I had to criticize him, it was that as president of South Africa, I think that there were one or two of his colleagues in the cabinet who performed less than scintillatingly well. And a more ruthless person, and someone less committed to the party probably would have sacked them.

Nelson Mandela tended to be very protective of even poor performing colleagues. And that would be criticism that I would make of him. It was his good side, which had a down side.

GROSS: I think you imply in your book, that you don't think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be possible if it weren't for Mandela's generous spirit -- the fact that he can emerge from such a long prison stay, and not be just kind of bitter, and seeking revenge, but rather have this generosity of spirit. That seemed to be almost contagious.

TUTU: Yes, I believe that we were exceedingly blessed. I mean, God was very, very, very good to us, to have made available, at precisely this point in our history, someone such as Nelson Mandela. Can we imagine if he had come out of jail, spewing revenge and a lust for retribution. I mean, can we imagine where we would have been today?

Perhaps we would not even have made the very first base, because the transition happened, in a sense, because Mr. De Klerk encountered Nelson Mandela, and was amazed at the generosity of spirit of this man, of his magnanimity, of his willingness to forgive, of his commitment to reconciliation.

Had he been the opposite, I doubt that Mr. De Klerk would have gone ahead with his very, very courageous initiatives that he announced on February the 2nd, 1990. It was absolutely crucial. And then once he came out, he could turn to people who had been hurt grievously, and say, "Look, let us not want to pay back in the same coin."

And nobody would have been able to say to him, "Ha ha, you are talking very glibly about forgiveness and things of that kind, because you know nothing about suffering." Twenty-seven years in jail, you know, I mean God gave him an incredible kind of credibility.

And the greatest part of his stature stems from the fact, not that he presided over a very rich country, because we're not a very rich country. We're not militarily powerful. It is because of his moral stature.

GROSS: Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written a new book about sharing South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It's called "No Future Without Forgiveness."

He'll be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

After two decades of fighting apartheid, and winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, he chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It's mission was to uncover the truth about human rights abuses under apartheid. Those who were guilty of abuses, and told the truth, were considered for amnesty.

Tutu has written a new book about the commission called "No Future Without Forgiveness."

You say that some people kind of referred to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the Kleenex Commission, because there was so much crying during the testimony of people who had been victimized under apartheid. And you say that there was one episode in particular, in which you really broke down and cried. And after that, you swore you would never cry during one of the commission meetings again.

What was the story that got you to weep like that?

TUTU: This man came as one of the witnesses, very early on in the life of the commission. Actually, at our very first hearing, in a place called East London. And he was semi-paralyzed, and was sitting in a wheelchair.

He'd been on Robin Island, in and out of jails, harassed by the Security Police. And at the end of his testimony to the commission, my colleague, the deputy chair of the commission, said could he describe one of the ways in which he was tortured.

He had a speech impediment as a result of a stroke that he had suffered, which was a consequence, I think, of the torture that he had received over the years. And he was trying to describe something called the "helicopter method", where you are strung out. And then they spin you during the torture. And you are really quite helpless.

And he was trying to describe this. And at one point, I am not quite sure whether he felt frustrated that the words were not coming out as fluently as he wanted them, because of his speech impediment, or it was that he could not bare the memory of what they had done to him. At that particular point in his telling, he lifted his good hand -- the only hand that he could easily move, and covered his face.

Now, we'd been sitting, listening to -- I mean -- quite gruesome details and stories through the day. And he was one of the last -- he was probably the last witness to testify. And so, I think almost all of us were almost at the ends of our tether.

And when he broke down -- you know, this adult man broke down -- it triggered me off. I couldn't -- I couldn't sit there, you know, and be stolid. I mean the dams, you know, just broke. And we had to have a recess for a little while, whilst I tried to recover. He tried to recover.

Why I said I was not going to cry again, as if I could control it, was that the media tended then, to concentrate on me, whereas the point of the commission was that the attention had to be on the witness, especially these people who for so long had been treated like dirt, whose dignity had been trodden underfoot for so many years, these people who officially were nothing -- that it was important that they should have their day.

And to divert that attention by my breaking down was, in a way, slightly unforgivable.

(LAUGHTER)

But I had a tough time, I ought to say. I said I considered that I was probably not the right person to be the chairperson of the commission. I thought that I was too weak.

GROSS: Is it true that the members of the commission got some kind of psychological counselling in how to deal with hearing so many stories of atrocities and torture?

TUTU: Yeah. Right at the beginning, we were helped by one of our staff persons, who was a psychologist, or had psychological training. And he advised us, for instance, that we should try to maintain a disciplined life, a regular life; that we should ensure that we had so-called quality time with our families; that we took regular recreation and exercise.

But most importantly he said, we needed to have a kind of soul mate to whom we could go to unburden ourselves. Because, he said, what tended to happen is that we would be traumatized, ourselves, as (ph) by proxy. Because as we listened to this person telling their story, we internalized their story and took it in and it devastated us. And if we didn't want that to happen, as we heard these stories we should try some way of letting what we -- what came in, go out.

I don't know that many of us followed that particular advice. What I do know is that I'm beginning to realize more and more that being on this commission took a tremendous toll on a vast number of people, certainly on all the commissioners. I think it was traumatized in a way for me by the fact that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the middle of the commission.

I would probably have had cancer in any case, but it did just seem so apt that it should happen as (ph) in the middle, showing in a sense, that we could be healers only because we ourselves were wounded. We might be able to help them only because we were ourselves in the same boat. And it was an incredible thing.

One of my colleagues, they were responsible for transcriptions, typing out the transcriptions of the evidence. She was head of the pool of people who did this. And she, she said she didn't know how this thing was affecting him until she saw the tears and felt the tears on her hands, as she was typing, because she didn't know she was crying. And many of my colleagues said that they found, for instance, that they were drinking more than they used, that they were probably a great deal more short tempered, especially at home.

And it must have taken an incredible toll on those who were the interpreters. Because you see, the interpreter listens to the -- to this person speaking in the first person. And at one moment, the interpreter is a victim, "They undressed and they did whatever they wanted to do with me." And then the next moment, he or she is a perpetrator and she's going to speak in the first person. She doesn't say, "He says..." She's going to say, "I abducted him. And I gave him drugged coffee and I shot him in the head. I then burnt his body and as his body was burning, I was having a barbecue."

I mean, you could think that theoretically you will -- you'd be able to make a distinction and say, "This is my public life, this is my private life." It didn't work out that way.

So, it's that we are going to find that the price that has yet to paid for the reconciliation that is happening in our country, is not just in terms of money, and it's not in terms of the things that you -- I mean you could draw double lines under 1998, when we handed over our report. It's going to be an ongoing price that people pay for as (ph) in their lives.

But it's a price that's been worth it.

GROSS: What about this, what about the survivors of victims? Like the family of Steven Biko? He was a young, very forceful opponent of Apartheid, who was murdered in prison and when the people who murdered him confessed, his family didn't want amnesty for the killers, they wanted to pursue criminal charges in court.

TUTU: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm sure that they weren't the only ones who felt that they were being robbed of pursuing it in court and having the people punished for their crimes. What's your reaction to that, what's your response to them?

TUTU: Which mother would be regarded as a normal mother is she's told, you know, we gave your boys hand grenades and they happened to be booby trapped hand grenades. And when they pulled out the pin to throw the hand grenade at whatever adversary they had, the hand grenades blew up in their hands and blew them to smithereens. And the police, who is confessing this sits there, and the mother sits there. Which normal mother would say, "I'm ready to embrace you."?

The amazing thing is that they could sit there and not want to go and choke the person who killed their child in this fashion. No, I don't think that we should criticize people, we should say, "It is your right." But remember that our country would not be in a position where you could in fact say, "I want to charge these people." We would not have had the transition that provides you with a democratic dispensation that would make it possible for you to charge. That would be the first thing.

The second is that for many people, the evidence was not available. The police, the government, they lied, I mean they lied like it was going out of fashion. I mean they thought nothing of perjuring themselves. And they admit it now.

And people now because they see the evidence coming as a result of the disclosures by the perpetrators say, "We could have brought cases against them." You'd have brought cases against them and they would have been thrown out of court, because you had to prove beyond reasonable doubt. And if these guys did what they were doing so well in the past, they hid evidence.

I mean we didn't know who owned (ph) House. We had suspicions, you know, and so we would say to those people, "Can you imagine what would have happened in our country if the police and the soldiers had known that at the end of the transition they were going to be for the high jump (sic)?"

We would not have had, we would not have had the transition that amazed the world in 1994.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Desmond Tutu. And he chaired the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He's written a new book about it called, "No Future Without Forgiveness".

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is "FRESH AIR."

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa. He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and has written a new book about it, called "No Future Without Forgiveness". He's also the recipient of a 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.

Now what is the value of that truth in building a new democracy in South Africa?

TUTU: Without the truth, they cannot ultimately be real reconciliation. And for us, it was important that the truth is acknowledged. It was important for the victims that their story was a story now that was accepted, acknowledged publicly.

Their humanity was rehabilitated in an extraordinary way, because sometimes, you saw it almost like a miracle unfolding before your eyes. As people told their stories, horrendous stories, they seemed to be growing. They seemed to have a weight lifted off their shoulders.

And this is how they described themselves. Some said, "Now that I have told my story, it is as if a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders." So that those people who are now no longer burdened by the nightmares of the past, can, with their shoulders straightened and heads held high, stride into this new future without the entail, without the albatross of that past hanging 'round their necks.

GROSS: As you said, you were diagnosed with prostate cancer during the commission hearings. And I'm wondering how that affected your stamina and your willingness to see it through. I think when someone's diagnosed with a serious illness, one that's possibly even a terminal illness, that you become -- you need to become almost selfish in a way. You need to focus on treatment, on preserving your strength. And...

TUTU: Well, no, it was actually quite wonderful in a way. I got to see the cancer as, in many ways, a blessing. It brought me to a realization that I had been taking too many things for granted. And in some ways, one wishes that all of us could have a life-threatening disease which would make us be a great deal more appreciative of things like your spouse's love, your children's laughter, the beauty of a sunset.

I mean we think, "Ah well, these things -- I'll see them tomorrow." When you have a thing that tells you, "Hey, you've got a time bomb ticking away," you look at a rose now with dew on the petals, and you say, "Hey, isn't this gorgeous. I may be seeing this for the last time." There's a new intensity to things.

And I used to use my illness sometimes. When we had tense moments in the commission, I would say, "Oh man, please. I'm an old sick man, be nice to me." And it often helped to diffuse tense moments in the commission. But it also was an incredible thing because I received good wishes from people that would not have normally wanted to send me good wishes. It was wonderful, it was wonderful, really.

I received an incredible amount of loving and remarkable generosity.

GROSS: What's the latest on the cancer?

TUTU: They've discovered that after the radiation, there's been residual cancer in the prostate, but mercifully, it has not spread to other parts of the body. And, in fact, very soon, I'll be having what they call "cryosurgery", which is to freeze the prostate.

And I just want to give thanks to all the very many people who have prayed for me and wished me well. And to say to people who have, certainly prostate cancer, there is life after prostate cancer.

GROSS: I thank you so much for sharing some of your time with us.

Thank you.

TUTU: God bless you.

GROSS: Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His new book is called "No Future Without Forgiveness."

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new mystery, "Motherless Brooklyn."

This is "FRESH AIR."

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Desmond Tutu
High: Former archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Desmond Tutu, has written a new book about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission of which he was chairman, "No Future Without Forgiveness."
Spec: World Affairs; South Africa; Race Relations; Desmond Tutu

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "No Future Without Forgiveness": An Interview With Desmond Tutu

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 02, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110202NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "Motherless Brooklyn": A Review
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Jonathan Lethem's new novel is called "Motherless Brooklyn." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that odd title is just the beginning of a wild ride through a Brooklyn that even its natives don't know exists.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Reading the first few pages of Jonathan Lethem's new novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," made me remember an uncomfortable incident that took place many years ago when I was attending a day-long academic conference on Victorian literature.

As usual, all the paper presenters had droned way past their allotted time. So when the last presenter finally took his place behind the podium, we listeners were restless and hungry.

Then the speaker opened his mouth, and you could literally feel all the bodies in that auditorium deflate, because that speaker had a bad stutter, and his paper, as I recall, was on Tennyson.

Looking back now, I applaud that man's courage, stuttering out a paper before an academic audience that, at best, is usually politely hostile. But it was the awful feeling of being trapped in a room with a speaker who desperately wanted to tell you something that he couldn't quite spit out that came back to me as I began reading "Motherless Brooklyn," whose narrator, named Lionel Esrog (ph), suffers from Tourette's syndrome.

Did I need to sit through this? Three hundred-plus pages of verbal ticks and spontaneous obscenities disrupting or, worse, constituting the narrative?

Well, I sat, at first because Lionel was describing the blasted landscape of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the area around the Midtown Tunnel in Queens. That's my old home turf, and Lionel's vivid, broken speech style did strange justice to that post-apocalyptic wasteland of factories and cemeteries.

The landscape description was occasioned by a car chase scene in the novel, one of the most suspenseful I can ever remember reading. At the point that "Motherless Brooklyn" turned into a mystery, I relaxed, and trusted that since the novel was letting its characters loose in such grubby terrain, it wasn't using Lionel's Tourette's as a metaphor to signify the impossibility of narrative or some such other literary horror.

Instead, in its unpretentious, absolutely spellbinding and melancholy way, "Motherless Brooklyn" uses Lionel's Tourette's to signify an existential horror. It invites us readers to think about all the millions of words we'll never have time enough to speak.

The story line and characters of "Motherless Brooklyn" are so richly imagined, I'd need Lionel's gluttonous vocabulary to do them justice. Let's leave the plot summary at this. Twenty years ago, when the young orphan Lionel and his friends lived at the St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn, they were summoned to meet a hood named Frank Minna. Minna organized them into a kind of rogues' army for moving stolen goods, and his attention gave them a sense of identity and even pride.

Flash forward to the present, when the adult Lionel, who's still working for Minna, discovers his Fagin father figure's bloody body in a Dumpster. Lionel resolves to find the killer, a search that takes him into all-night Brooklyn coffee shops, an upper East Side Buddhist zendo, and ultimately to a fishy former lobster joint in Maine where a Jewish mother joke holds the key to the killing.

As a mystery story, "Motherless Brooklyn" brilliantly weds style and content. Lionel's limitless vocabulary acts as the linguistic counterpart to the seemingly limitless clues and connections he stumbles upon as an obsessive detective.

If that paltry plot summary doesn't grab you, Lionel's hyper-alert language should. Here, for instance, is how he makes sad poetry out of a description of a hole-in-the-wall newspaper shop where Brooklynites gather to buy Lotto tickets.

"There was something tragic in the way they stood obediently waiting, many of them elderly, others new immigrants, illiterate, except in the small language of their chosen game, deferring to anyone with real business, like the purchase of a pack of double-A batteries or a tube of lip gloss. That docility was heartbreaking.

"The games were almost over before they started, the foil underneath bared. New York is a Tourettic city, and this great communal scratching and counting and tearing is a definite symptom."

Like Lionel, I could go on. Unlike Lionel, I'll put the verbal brakes on. The astonishing thing about "Motherless Brooklyn" is that, as a reader, you're delighted that Lionel can't.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Motherless Brooklyn" by Jonathan Lethem.

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Amy Sallett (ph), Phyllis Meyers (ph), and Naomi Person, with Monique Nazareth, Anne-Marie Boldanado (ph), and Patty Leswing (ph). Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Motherless Brooklyn" by Jonathan Lethem, a mystery novel set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Spec: Entertainment; "Motherless Brooklyn"; Jonathan Lethem

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Motherless Brooklyn": A Review
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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52:30

Did COVID-19 Leak From A Lab? A Reporter Investigates — And Finds Roadblocks

President Biden has asked the intelligence community to investigate whether or not the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban shares her findings.

41:50

'Forget The Alamo' Author Says We Have The Texas Origin Story All Wrong

In their new book, Forget the Alamo, Bryan Burrough and co-writers Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford challenge common misconceptions surrounding the conflict — including the notion that Davy Crockett was a martyr who fought to the death rather than surrender.

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