An ongoing theme of Jonathan Lethem’s novels has been the ever-widening gulf between the haves and have-nots—how those who feel disenfranchised cope with that while creating their own form of society. This theme often leads Lethem to delve into the current state of America, its politics, economics, and culture, as well as the good and bad aspects of human nature, as he does in The Feral Detective.
As he did in his terrific Motherless Brooklyn and Girl in Landscape, Lethem again sculpts characters who, because they have no other place to go, create their own worlds. Lethem’s books have been called gonzo detective novels, and that’s an apt description of the kind of bizarre plots that somehow, against almost all conventions, work. The late Hunter S. Thompson, the epitome of gonzo writing, would be proud of Lethem’s edgy The Feral Detective. The rest of us will bask in Lethem’s skill at creating an oddball world with characters who beg us to love them.
The 2016 elections have left New Yorker Phoebe Singer completely adrift. Trying to pull herself out of her funk, she agrees to help search for a friend’s missing 18-year-old daughter, Arabella, who has dropped out of college. Arabella is believed to have disappeared during a Leonard Cohen–inspired pilgrimage to Mount Baldy.
The search leads Phoebe to Charles Heist, the “feral detective” who got his nickname for his habit of taking in strays—even feral ones. Dogs, opossums (well, just one), and children find a refuge with Heist. And that goes for an adrift New Yorker, as well.
Phoebe and Heist end up in the Mojave Desert, where two fringe societies have established roots. But the idyllic civilization these dropouts thought they were creating is far from the reality of violence, fear, and war that permeates these two cults.
The Feral Detective occasionally stumbles, especially when Lethem indulges in going overboard to describe the two factions who live in the desert. A little less howling, which seems to be the preferred mode of communication between the residents, would have delivered a stronger effect. And the growing relationship between Phoebe and Heist sometimes feels too clichéd.
But as an insightful look at a woman coming to a new appreciation of herself—and of life—The Feral Detective excels.