One day in the fifth grade, I was sent home from school with a note from my teacher: I was accused of meowing in class. I don’t remember the actual incident, instead a version I’ve cobbled together from hearing my mother tell the tale again and again. I don’t doubt that I am guilty of the transgression of meowing, and I can barely tell whether I accurately recall the timbre of my mewling or if I have presumed what it must have been after the fact; regardless, I can hear my ten year-old self caterwauling like an orange tabby as if it were recorded to tape. I was a class clown in my younger years, and not a particularly wry or sardonic one, but an outlandish buffoon who would fall off his chair, declare non sequiturs loudly in the middle of lessons, dance wildly in the hallway during fire drills, and almost certainly meow during class.
I remember precisely why I behaved that way, it was to avoid having to deal with bullies or any humiliation, really. It was hard to put down a kid who purposely dumped trays of cafeteria food on himself for a laugh. I was in control of myself in determining to be out of control, unflappable and unreachable by anyone who would be stupid enough to soldier beyond the endless song parodies and pratfalls that comprised my personality and discover there was a scared weakling within. I wonder now if my fifth grade teacher thought I had some kind of nervous affliction, like the narrator of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel, who has Tourettes Syndrome. I certainly did not, but I remember a guy in my neighborhood that did. He would contort his face in nervous tics and spaz out while walking home from the Long Island Rail Road and neighborhood kids would follow him on their bicycles and jeer.
I don’t normally read fiction, but I like to mix it in with my biographies and comic books at a ratio of about 1:4. I read Fortress of Solitude earlier this year, and I enjoyed it quite a bit so my girlfriend recommended this earlier work of Lethem’s. Motherless Brooklyn is equal parts an artistic work of literary fiction and a hard-boiled detective novel in the tradition of Mickey Spillane. Told by a guy whose verbal permutations and sharp cries of “Eat me, Bailey!” pepper the narrative, the story is about an orphaned Brooklyn hood’s search to find the killer of his patron, a small-time gangster named Frank Minna. Simultaneously, he learns about the man behind the gangster’s veneer and in the process fosters his own independence. It’s sort of a coming-of-age story, except the main character is thirty-three at the time of its telling. There are lots of gripping twists and turns, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes reading for personal enjoyment.
The bit about Tourettes is interesting and provides its own commentary within the narration. Lionel’s tics and outbursts often allude to deeper meanings, ones which he either understands or which are totally unknowable, and which offer him a kind of hyper-sensitivity to his surroundings and people’s emotions. Lionel is normally taken for a crazy person and disregarded or underestimated by those he interacts with, for instance when a homicide detective lets him walk away from questioning because he’s acting so wildly. That I understood explicitly. I mastered the art of being invisible by acting boisterously by the time I was seven years old. I wish I had known about Tourettes Syndrome back then. I would have milked it for a lot more and probably gotten excused from gym.