Books

Jonathan Lethem
The Feral Detective

Jonathan Lethem’s 11th novel is an oddity. It begins five days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, when 33-year-old New York Times journalist Phoebe Siegler quits her job, partly in protest at her employer inviting the “Beast-Elect” in for a meeting, but also because she cannot believe he has won in the first place.

Ordinary people might be the most terrifying thing on earth. Or ordinary Americans, I should say. For months now, I’d studied them in the backdrops of the ceaseless televised rallies, stacked in those vertical arenas revering the back of a blue suit and a red hat, trying to fathom what it was they saw in him, and wondering where they went to, after.

Cut adrift, she decides to track down her friend’s errant 18-year-old daughter, Arabella, who has vanished into the Mojave Desert, just outside Los Angeles. Siegler decamps west and engages monolithic private eye Charles Heist, the so-called Feral Detective, who specialises in finding runaways. A fast-paced pursuit ensues and doesn’t let up until the closing paragraphs.

In many ways, this is classic contemporary noir. Heist is strong and taciturn, attractive despite his lack of personal grooming and tendency to stare stoically into the distance rather than answer reasonable questions. He wears an idiosyncratic leather jacket, has three charming tracker dogs and keeps an opossum dying from a urinary tract infection in his desk drawer. The work he does is solid, rescuing unwitting teenagers from the clutches of nefarious desert cults. At other times Lethem subverts the genre with clever flourishes, such as introducing a gun that is not fired, and by portraying Heist as little more than a lumbering slab of beef whom Siegler never really gets her head around.

Instead, Lethem opts to concentrate on Siegler’s descent from twitchy, uptight liberal member of the east coast outrage police into a disaffected feral of her own making:

In New York, that caffeinated neurotic atmosphere guarantees you think something important is happening every single second of your life. In fact, you’re just eating shit. I mean literally so unhealthy you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror. And you ride the subway to some job that barely pays your rent and the only reason you don’t know it sucks is that a thousand other people are telling you how lucky you are.

Once Siegler teams up with Heist, she is dragged through mud, rain, dust and heat as they infiltrate the Bears and the Rabbits, two rival off-the-grid communities living Mad Max: Fury Road style in the Mojave. The author goes to great pains pointing out how unwashed and disgusting everyone is, although the descriptions of Siegler’s bodily excretions read like a male writer determined to exhibit his ability to create a convincing female protagonist. Some of the phrases employed are a little ripe.

Other than that, Siegler is a promising if mildly irritating female lead. She speaks with a knowing wit, often laced with jargon (“I was dressed to the nines, or at least the sevens.”) and has filter issues, yet possesses a journalistic knack for correctly guessing the ulterior motives of the degenerates she meets in these desert communities. Buoyed with determination, she throws herself into the mission, acutely aware of how separate this world is from the political circus playing out on the internet.

Many prominent liberal American public figures vowed to up sticks and leave if Trump was elected. Siegler does so straightaway, casting herself down among the paranoid anti-government loonies who see messages in jet-plane vapour trails and expect Black Hawk helicopters to swoop into their compound at any given sunrise. At one pivotal moment, she interrupts a Thunderdome fight to the death by sounding a rape horn in one combatant’s ear and screaming at the crowd, “DID YOU FUCKERS EVEN VOTE?”

Lethem tackles the thorny subject of gender identity with his creation of the Bears and Rabbits. The Bears, led by thuggish Solitary Love, are an exclusively male group of former bikies, veterans and desperados, with an added sprinkling of kidnappers and perverts. The Rabbits, led by sinewy matriarch Anita, are female healers and eye-rolling New Age dropouts. They are summed up thusly: “Men did things for women and then vanished, and the women discussed them.”

Neither group is portrayed with much sympathy. Siegler finds no kinship, nothing relatable in their confused doctrines. Both sides are wretched and unlikeable. They are in fact the detritus from a hippie utopia turned sour, a baby boomer fantasy wrecked by age and progress. Their grip on reality is hanging by a thread, made all the more precarious by an entirely new generation of desert outcasts driving souped-up cars tricked out with gun racks and booming speaker systems:

They hadn’t journeyed to this apocalyptic frontier honestly, weren’t fugitives from Vietnam conscription or SDS or LSD or of a Janov scream that never ended, like the Bears. They’d watched a movie, perhaps starring Mel Gibson, or a YouTube clip, and geared up.

The fresh arrivals in the desert are rifle-toting hardscrabblers looking for a way out of the system, desert racers, Burning Man-attendees and artists wishing to co-opt the landscape for sound installations. Even the Mojave cannot escape development and gentrification. There are no havens of solitude left.

As a snapshot of alternative America, The Feral Detective offers little consolation to readers seeking an escape from the 24-hour news cycle that still obsesses over every move the 45th president makes. Running off to the desert to throw in with the feral dropouts may seem like an attractive option, but in Lethem’s warped noir, ignorance is not bliss. Like the punishing desert sun, an orange spectre looms over even the most remote communities. Siegler hints throughout at the truth she is struggling to accept. The old world is gone, and the new one is a vacuous apocalyptic parody where leaders battle for control of an empire of dust while we look on in horror, munching vegan popcorn.  JD

Atlantic, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "Jonathan Lethem, The Feral Detective". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JD