Jonathan Lethem’s new book is described by his publisher as his “first detective novel” since “Motherless Brooklyn,” his 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner. But attempts to pass off either book as genre fiction seem off the mark.
“Motherless Brooklyn” was less a whodunit than a fascinating dive into what it takes to decipher the reality around you — in this case, a world of lethal organized-crime shenanigans — via the distorting, disruptive filter of Tourette’s syndrome. The neurological tics of Lethem’s narrator made for wild verbal pyrotechnics that threw every encounter and exchange he had antically off-course.
“The Feral Detective” tries just as hard for offbeat scenarios and effects, but it doesn’t feel as meticulously engineered. The agendas of the off-the-grid Mojave Desert cults that figure prominently in the novel are ill-defined and random, and Lethem’s obvious distress at Donald Trump occupying the White House comes off as something he needed to vent about while writing a non-Trump-related book. (If “The Feral Detective” and Barbara Kingsolver’s recent “Unsheltered” are anything to go by, we are in for a deluge of novels that flail in bewilderment and disbelief at the 2016 election and its attendant administration. )
The voice of the book’s narrator, however, is engaging, and Lethem’s conjurations of the obscure California locales his heroine digs into couldn’t be more vivid.
Phoebe Siegler is “a pure product of Manhattan” who heads West when her best friend’s daughter, Arabella Swados, vanishes from her college dorm in Portland, Ore. Arabella, it seems, has an obsession with Leonard Cohen and may be trying to track the singer-songwriter down at Mount Baldy, the Southern California Zen retreat he favored.
Cohen, of course, died the same week that Trump was elected. But he’s the only clue Phoebe has to the girl’s whereabouts. So off she goes to “the dusty yellow mysteries” of Upland, a suburb in the shadow of Mount Baldy, east of L.A.
In Upland, she connects with detective Charles Heist, whose services are recommended to her after the police make it clear that college students who’ve decided to hit the road rather than attend class aren’t a criminal matter. Phoebe herself, at 33, is on the run from a journalistic career after “the Beast-Elect” visits her newspaper’s offices to subject its staff to his “castigation and flattery.” (An impulse to ditch one’s own reality is a trait common to many characters in the book.)
Phoebe’s sense of being a fish-out-of-water as she pulls into the strip mall where Heist’s office is located is immediate and complete. “The building made you aware of mental blinders,” she remarks. “To park your car here was to not be who you thought you were.”
In the novel’s first lines we meet Charles, who is identified as “The Feral Detective” for reasons that emerge as the plot unfolds. He strikes Phoebe at first as being less a sleuth than a likely suspect in the disappearance of gullible, willful young women like Arabella. But he knows his turf. And the places he takes Phoebe, including a homeless camp near Upland, a Korean-owned compound on Mount Baldy, and an all-female commune in the Mojave, aren’t places she would ever have found on her own.
Phoebe is soon trying to wrap her mind around Heist as urgently as she’s trying to get a handle on Arabella’s disappearance. “He worked in and through contradiction,” she decides. “The man was unprovokable to an almost autistic degree.”
She also starts finding him intensely sexually attractive, which may be why she follows him to remote desert communes that most people would avoid. The one populated entirely by women is the Rabbits. Its all-male counterpart is the Bears. Heist has connections to both that go back years.
One way to describe “The Feral Detective” is as “emotional science fiction,” a label filmmaker Alan Rudolph (“Choose Me”) coined to describe his own work. There’s no flagrant fantasy in the book, but almost every verbal exchange Phoebe has is baffling, outlandish, and oblique. Most figures she meets are unusual in physical appearance or behavior, yet after making their striking first impressions, they stay two-dimensional.
There’s some enjoyable writing en route — for example, with Phoebe’s take on Joshua trees — “knobby agonized forms, half Bosch, half Seuss.” Her snappy comebacks offer goofy pleasures as well. (“Humans,” someone tells her, “are born polymorphous and free.” “Not me,” she argues. “I was born in a short black skirt. But go on.”)
In both his prose and his plot twists, Lethem is drawn toward the edge of sense. “To be feral,” Phoebe reflects, “wasn’t merely to be a wild child, but to be one cut loose, or run loose, from some point of origin.”
The novel hints provocatively at a number of concerns — but in the end it just doesn’t add up.
THE FERAL DETECTIVE
By Jonathan Lethem
Ecco, 329 pp., $26.99
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Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.