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The Wheels Come Off an American Journey in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Feral Detective’

By November 9, 2018No Comments

Source : The New York Times

TRUMP KILLED LEONARD COHEN. That was the motto on a T-shirt worn by the rock critic Robert Christgau at a 2017 Village Voice reunion. Those four words also capture the vibe of the early pages of “The Feral Detective,” Jonathan Lethem’s flaky, trivial, intermittently entertaining 11th novel.

The book is set not long after Donald Trump’s election. (Cohen died the day before the vote.) It’s about a young woman, a Reed College student and Cohen fanatic named Arabella, who has disappeared. It’s possible she’s gone into California’s San Gabriel Mountains, where Cohen spent five years in a Zen monastery.

On Arabella’s trail is Phoebe Siegler, a wisecracking, 30-something Nancy Drew manqué who is a friend of Arabella’s mother, an NPR producer, back in New York.

Phoebe is the narrator of “The Feral Detective.” She’s internet-famous, having publicly quit her editing job at The New York Times after the election. The last straw was “the notorious day in November when my boss and all the rest of them sat deferentially with the Beast-Elect at a long table behind closed doors, to soak in his castigation and flattery.”

It’s not just The Times that has let Phoebe down. “I blamed my city for producing and being unable to defeat the monster in the tower.” All of her verities have been upended, including the meaning of her Ivy League education. “Harvard, Hillary, Trump, The New York Times. Names I hated to say, as if they pinned me to a life that had curdled in its premises.”

The search for Arabella is a chance for Phoebe to flee Gotham, to hit the road in search of what’s happened out in America. She may even get an essay out of the experience (everything is material), one she might sell, naturally, to The New York Times Magazine.

She thinks to herself, in a journalistic reverie: “Sew a Pepe the Frog medallion onto your backpack, young lady, and go seduce the unspeakable and hairy, then report back.”

There’s a good book lurking in this material. (Gary Shteyngart, in his new novel, also sends a lone pilgrim out into Trump country.) “The Feral Detective” is not it. This one begins losing parts out on the interstate almost immediately.

The plot is shaggy and complicated; so much so that even the author loses interest in it. (“Anyone mind if I skip the chase scene?” Phoebe asks at one point.) But here’s an attempt at fishing out some particulars.

Phoebe walks into the Los Angeles office of a private dick named Charles Heist, the so-called feral detective. He’s a quiet, handsome, lupine fellow who keeps an opossum — it doesn’t matter why — in his desk drawer. Phoebe falls for him almost immediately, dreaming of getting him alone “in some rustic cabin on a fireside pelt rug.”

Soon Charles is leading her up into the mountains and down into the deserts in search of Arabella. They stumble upon warring clans of semi-nomads called the Rabbits and the Bears. No, not the gay sort of bears. These are ex-hippies, quasi-bikers, malcontents, professional wearers of bandannas.

Some of these off-the-grid humans think airplane contrails are speaking to them. The chief Rabbit, Anita, comes off a bit like Tina Turner in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” albeit in a Meat Puppets T-shirt.

The Bears have a young, mad king named Solitary Love. Is Arabella his sex slave? Charles, with his basilisk stoicism, will ultimately have to fight Solitary Love in an amphitheater, with a nearly naked Arabella rooting against him.

What else can I tell you? One of the book’s biggest set pieces takes place on a Ferris wheel out in the desert, one that’s been turned into a prison. Everyone gets his or her own little birdcage gondola. Everyone’s his or her own Sir Walter Raleigh, locked in a tin tower.

Lethem is a student, and frequently a master, of literary genre. This novel is his first detective novel since “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999), arguably his masterpiece.

Lethem has read his Raymond Chandler, who said of his own hero: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Charles, who howls and bays when in distress, is nonetheless cut from the Philip Marlowe mold.

This novel’s tone is closer to that of Elmore Leonard. It’s got a bit of boogie in its bones. Yet it utterly lacks the density and sure-footedness of “Motherless Brooklyn.”

A central problem is that Phoebe is a ditz. Her cultural references (the Flintstones, Yogi the Bear, Nancy Drew, Elmer Fudd) are as cartoonish as she is. Lethem never gives her anything impudent, urgent or surprising to say or think or feel. To borrow a line from Angela Carter, who used it about a former husband, Phoebe has a kiddie windmill for a heart.

Her stabs at banter (“It’s a Bears, Bears, Bears world, but it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman or a girl”) are traumatic. She apologizes more than once for this novel’s dialogue.

Phoebe does to Charles, in bed, what she dreams she will do, with her this-is-America exposé, to establishment journalism. But there’s zero indication she has the mental gear or tensile soul to write such a piece.

About her hirsute new boyfriend, she writes: “Heist was as unmannerly, as dour and self-enclosed, as an emo guitarist packing in after a poorly attended gig at a bar in Greenpoint.” She half-apologizes for this line, too.

Lethem is such a generous and ingenious writer that it’s painful to watch him flounder. Is it time to worry that literary novels will be among the next casualties of Trump Derangement Syndrome?


An earlier version of this review misstated when Leonard Cohen died relative to the presidential election of 2016. He died the day before the election, not “less than a week later.”

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