The Feral Detective is Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, and his first “detective” story since arguably his most famous novel, Motherless Brooklyn. It’s also one of many books coming out in the wake of the Cheetoe-in-chief’s presidency. Lethem has jokingly referred to himself as a “Bernie Bro” and he also donated to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, so it’s pretty clear where his political alliances are.
The protagonist of the tale is Phoebe, a former New York Times writer who has quit in protest after the paper’s infamous sit-down with Donald Trump after he “won” the presidency due to an arcane electoral college made to prop up slave states. She ends up going out to the Inland Empire in California to find her friend’s missing daughter, Arabella, who may be up in that Buddhist hideout where Leonard Cohen once stayed. She ends up hiring, teaming up with, and eventually becoming somewhat romantically involved with Charles Heist, who is the “feral detective” of the time.
It all ends up in this strange netherworld of survivalist gangs, one the “bears” and the other the “rabbits.” It’s not the most subtle allegory, but it’s clearly a comment on the two-party system that partly led to the mess we are in, and of course neither gang has good or pure intentions. There is even a fight two-thirds of the way through the book that seems like something that has jumped straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Lethem can do a genre mishmash, or a part-hardboiled detective story/part apocalyptic fable in his sleep. The problem is that Phoebe isn’t as engaging of a narrator as you might hope: she is the embodiment of the liberal bubble-dwelling middle class woman from New York who drinks too many glasses of wine while screaming at the TV every time Rachel Maddow does her constant coverage of the Russia investigation over the last two years. There is even a moment during a very silly sex scene where she mumbles to Heist “who did you vote for?” and then is like “never mind.”
Despite its messy nature, it’s still a fun wild ride into a post-Trump America as seen though the imagination of Jonathan Lethem. One highlight is Phoebe’s line near the end about the survivalists: “They’re all insane fucking Trump supporters but they’re also really into tripping on datura seeds so that’s kind of cool.” Lethem’s previous book, The Blot or The Gambler’s Anatomy (depending on the territory), was better, but hey, it’s Lethem and that certainly makes it worthwhile in the end.