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Jonathan Lethem’s Feral Detective is a mess. But it’s a fun mess.

It’s a post-election allegory about desert gangs. Look, go with it.

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem Ecco
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective is part of this year’s crop of post-election novels, and while it’s not the strongest of its ilk, it might be the weirdest. Its closest cousin is Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, but that novel, for all its quirks, followed a conventional story structure. The Feral Detective follows no structure, or if it does, it’s following a hand-drawn map of a desert wasteland created by a hermit who’s been high on shrooms for the past 15 years.

In The Feral Detective, as in Lake Success, a comfortably liberal protagonist is shaken into anguish and shock by the prospect of Donald Trump’s presidency, and both books feature a long, allegorically weighted journey deep into the heart of Trump land. But only in The Feral Detective is there a ritualized hand-to-hand combat to the death in a desert arena, followed by a dinner party at a hipper-than-thou resort.

The novel’s comfortably liberal protagonist is Phoebe, a former New York Times writer who quit the paper in protest after its infamous post-election summit with Trump. Reeling from both the loss of her job and the loss of her understanding of America, Phoebe throws herself into a new project: Arabella, the daughter of a friend, has gone missing, perhaps in California. So Phoebe heads off to the edges of LA — where the city meets the desert and the mountains — and hires Charles Heist, the so-called feral detective, to track Arabella down.

Here is some of what ensues:

  • Heist keeps an opossum with a UTI in his desk drawer. Phoebe thinks this is weird but becomes uncontrollably attracted to Heist regardless.
  • Heist leads Phoebe into the desert, where she becomes enmeshed in a conflict between two rival gangs. When they are locked into a ritualistic battle to the death, Phoebe breaks it up by screaming, “DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON, YOU STUPID FUCKING ASSHOLES? DID YOU FUCKERS EVEN VOTE?”
  • In the climactic final battle, a villain turns a rusted-out Ferris Wheel into a jail, with prisoners locked into each seat like it’s a dangling cage.
  • In the end, perhaps the real villain was gentrification all along.

The two desert gangs in question are the Rabbits, mostly women and children, peaceful; and the Bears, mostly men, aggressive and violent. The Rabbits and Bears function as a loose allegory for both the two-party political system and the battle of the sexes, but both are ultimately corrupt and betray those who are counting on them. Only Heist, who has ties to both gangs and as such belongs to neither, can be trusted to behave with humanity.

The Feral Detective operates in a noirish, apocalyptic register, all loopy fever dream logic. Ordinarily this kind of deconstructed genre work is right in Lethem’s sweet spot — think of the comic book thrills of Fortress of Solitude, or the trippy heist movie vibe of Gambler’s Anatomy — but in this case, it doesn’t quite land, mostly because Phoebe isn’t a compelling enough character to ground the rest of this heightened world.

She reads like a supporting character who was rapidly promoted to protagonist status without ever being quite fleshed out enough to justify it; nearly everything she says and does and thinks works to support Heist’s feral detective mystique. The result is that she feels lost and a little vacant in what is ostensibly her story. And because Phoebe is so vacant, the book doesn’t have the emotional resonance it needs to make all the genre stuff feel real.

When Phoebe really takes off as a protagonist — and, by extension, so does the rest of the book — is when she gets out of the desert and goes back to her liberal bubble to turn her experience in Trump country into street cred.

“Needless to say, they’re all insane fucking Trump supporters but they’re also really into tripping on datura seeds so that’s kind of cool,” she informs an installation artist at a dinner party. This is the kind of self-loathing cool kid one-upmanship that Lethem can write with exquisite precision — a similar sequence was one of the most heartbreaking parts of Fortress of Solitude — and here, it sings. But it’s also too brief to give The Feral Detective the emotional grounding it needs.

The Feral Detective is not Jonathan Lethem at his best, and it’s not the post-election novel at its best either — it’s a messy, trippy book that never quite finds its center. But there’s a kind of glee and energy to its messiness that always keeps it compelling. Even if you never quite know what Lethem is doing, it’s worth digging around in the chaos to see what gems you can unearth.

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