Has one of America’s leading literary novelists taken a sudden flying-squirrel leap into genre fiction? The jacket copy of Jonathan Lethem’s latest calls it his first detective novel since 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn — which may technically be true, in the sense that it offers up several dead bodies, a taciturn PI, and a girl gone AWOL. Though that description hardly allows for all the other categories that apply: improbable love story, postelection primal scream, metaphysical meditation on space and time and the Golden State. Call it, maybe, Tetherless Los Angeles.
That’s where our narrator, Phoebe Siegler, lands as the novel opens — unemployed, adrift, and “demented with despair.” A born Manhattanite raised on the liberal-elite dream (Harvard, NPR, a solid op-ed job at The New York Times), she’s abruptly abandoned everything in the wake of November 2016 and the coronation of the man she dubs “the Beast-Elect.” Already lost, she agrees to go in search of an older friend’s missing teenage daughter, a quiet girl named Arabella who’s disappeared from her dorm room — possibly in pursuit of her recently deceased hero, sonorous singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. A vision quest once led Cohen to a monastery on Mount Baldy; could Arabella have tried to follow in his spiritual footsteps?
To find out, Phoebe enlists a man named, perfectly and improbably, Charles Heist. That would be the Feral Detective of the title, though he is, to some degree, domesticated: There’s an office and an Airstream, albeit on the dingier outskirts of the city, and in his desk drawer, a docile opossum named Jean. (Jean’s urinary tract has seen better days; it’s hard out there for a marsupial.) Despite his long silences and analog methods, Heist actually seems to know what he’s doing; soon enough he has a lead, and Phoebe has a crush. The facts of the former are somehow both more outrageous and more believable: There are fringe groups squatting in the Mojave — survivalists, bikers, burned-out hippies — whose porous, possibly murderous borders may have swallowed Arabella whole.
Lethem is in his element writing about this far-out West — ruthless, sunbaked badlands culled from the strange brain confetti of Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. (Heist, with his deadpan koans and shaggy sideburns, also seems like he could have materialized from the loony periphery of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.) And the vivid California here is not a lotus-eater’s land of swaying palm trees and smoothie bars but “shabby pocket malls filled by outlets featuring massage and tattoo, vape and reptiles, as if the only way to make yourself right for this place was to be wreathed in lizards, smoke, and body ink.”
More problematic to the story is Phoebe — both as a woman written not always successfully by a man, and as a protagonist you want to spend time with. Set against Heist’s cowboy cool, she’s a sort of chatty, maddening mosquito, buzzing with unfiltered thoughts and bad ideas; too often, their mutual attraction feels less like true romance than willful plot contrivance. But Feral’s desert politics and dystopian wit still cast a sort of spell: a wild-goose mystery not so much about why or where people died, but how. Somehow, we keep on living. B
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