My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alexander Bruno is a backgammon gambler. The novel opens as he is traveling to Germany to play against a wealthy man. Unfortunately the “blot” that blocks his vision – and may also block others from reading his mind – intrudes in the game. The novel takes a step back to show how he got to Germany then forward to the United States.
Bruno is an outsider, set apart by his affliction – similar to Lethem’s hero Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn. As the story progresses, Bruno ends up in Berkeley, where he grew up, under the assistance of an old acquaintance who has become rich. Things get … um … complicated. The joy of the story is the unveiling of the plot so I won’t go into it much here; other than to say that his benefactor becomes his nemesis.
From Bruno’s journey through the past we see why he became a loner; for all intents and purposes he is an orphan. Through it all he developed a method to separate himself from his surroundings – maybe the blot helps. When the blot is removed will his defenses come tumbling down?
I see many parallels between Bruno and Lionel Essrog; both are outsiders, both are motherless, both have benefactors who come and go. Bruno has two: Edgar Falk who is his sponsor of sorts at the beginning of the story; then later Keith Stolarsky. Not to say the two novels are the the same story – they are quite different.
The strength of the novel is its immediacy – we get right in the middle of Bruno’s thoughts and the loneliness of his travels. His life is bleak and we are right there to see the causes and effects. And the chapter on the surgeon and the surgery to remove the blot is gripping. Lethem has a mastery of the language that held me rapt, turning page after page.
In the end this novel is not of the same caliber as Motherless Brooklyn. The ending wraps up a little too neatly. All the same it is a very good book. If you only read one Lethem book make it Motherless Brooklyn; that will most likely lead you to another – this would be an excellent followup.