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by Jonathan Lethem
Ecco, November 2018
336 pages
ISBN: 0062859064

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE FERAL DETECTIVE is billed as Jonathan Lethem's "first detective novel since MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN." Like much publicity, this is not altogether correct. True, Lethem hasn't written a detective novel since MOTHERLESS, but FERAL isn't really one either. It is an extremely difficult book to describe, not for fear of spoilers so much as that it draws on a range of iconic American themes that have little to do with a specific literary genre.

It does, more or less, begin in classic noir detective mode. New Yorker Phoebe Siegler, smart-mouthed and self-assured, walks into the office of one Charles Heist, a California private eye with a speciality in finding those who are lost and who don't want to be found. Phoebe has come west the days immediately before Trump's inauguration, still in shock at Hillary's loss and raging at whatever has produced this catastrophic victory. She's fed up with New York, the East, and decides to go West (as have so many) to search for answers. Specifically, she is looking for Arabella, the daughter of her close friend, who has gone missing from her college, apparently headed toward Mt Baldy in the Mojave desert, where Leonard Cohen spent years as a Buddhist monk in search of enlightenment. Arabella is enchanted with Leonard Cohen.

As far as detective fiction goes, that's pretty much it. The sexy upper-crust (sort of) lady meets ordinary-joe detective and falls for him head over heels. Predictably, they do wind up in bed fairly quickly. Phoebe, it is true, is a 21st century woman, in touch with her sexual nature, and thus does most of the running. Nor is she condemned for it. But neither she nor Heist does much in the way of actual detecting from there on in.

Instead Heist conducts her on a kind of guided tour of a strange landscape he is curiously familiar with but which is utterly foreign to Phoebe. He conducts her through the Mojave desert, which borders on suburban LA, a place populated by the mad, the bad, and the desperate. Among them are two tribes, the Rabbits, vegan and female, and the Bears, toxically male. It is a curiously post-apocalyptic scene existing in the pre-apocalypse.

Although the reason for this journey is ostensibly to find Arabella and bring her home to her mother, the real motive appears to be to uncover some explanation for the Trump presidency. It is as though Phoebe is travelling back some fifty years or so to a moment when the American fabric similarly seemed to be unravelling and one response was to flee off the grid and onto the land to work out a better way of being. The Rabbits and the Bears can trace their ancestry to those days and that project and so, for that matter, can Charles Heist himself. That they were essentially less able to shed the confines of gender definition than they had hoped or believed accounts for their inability to present an attractive alternative to what they had sought to escape.

Generally speaking, the reviews of THE FERAL DETECTIVE have been largely negative, with many expressing disappointment that it is not like MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. But that was then and this is now and Lethem has made what is so far the most interesting fictional attempt to deal with the new American political reality that I have read, one that moves it far beyond simple demographics to something embedded in the American character.

Moreover, this is often a wildly funny novel and one that can evoke the natural scene in eloquent and surprising ways. The image of a Ferris wheel, rusted and tipsily perched on the lip of a canyon is impossible to forget. It comes to no firm conclusions but it does ask some very provocative questions and I strongly recommend you read it for yourselves.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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