Saturday, December 29, 2018

Books: "The Feral Detective" By Jonathan Lethem

The Feral Detective: A Novel
By Jonathan Lethem
Ecco; hardcover, 336 pages; $26.99

Jonathan Lethem's eleventh novel, the first since his National Books Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn, centers on a young Manhattanite who is burned out and ends up teaming up with a private investigator in the hunt for her friend's missing daughter in The Feral Detective.

Phoebe Siegler quits her job at The New York Times in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and soon after, she learns that Arabella, the daughter of her best friend Roslyn Swados has disappeared.

Jonathan Lethem.
Lethem writes in the voice of Phoebe, "One night in September, I went to dinner with Roslyn. We met at Prune, on First Street. We sat on either side of a stew of mussels and leeks, our favorite, only nothing was right that night, and it was more than the nothing-is-right of foreshadowed electoral doom. Arabella hadn't been calling home. Her texts were minimal, their tone hostile and defensive. Roslyn didn't know what to do.
"'Did you call your mother from college?' Roslyn asked bluntly.
"'My mother wasn't one you called,' I began. I said it with a glibness I regretted immediately.
"'Arabella thinks of me the same way.'
"Of course. Something obscure came clear, the reason I'd inserted myself so deeply in the family. I'd been free to behold and adore a mother and a daughter equally, even if they couldn't themselves. In the system of my own family, I could only choose one side.
"'I'll reach out,' I said. The think I knew she hoped I'd say.
"I got  Arabella on the phone, once. She didn't like her classes, or Portland. She repeated a promise from before, that she would drop out and head to Mount Baldy, to find Leonard Cohen. I treated this with skeptical amusement - a big mistake. And Arabella probably sniffed me out; she was too smart to fool. For the first time ever, I'd agreed to act as a go-between or mole for her mother.
"Then came the week in November when, accompanying the national calamity, Leonard Cohen dropped dead. When Roslyn ran Arabella's cell, she got only a text in return: I'm fine. Somehow, I thought, I'm fine never means what it says."

Roslyn heads to Portland to find her daughter, but discovers she is missing. With a job going nowhere and still in shock from the election, Phoebe takes up the search for Arabella. A stray credit card charge leads her to Southern California's Inland Empire, where she is put in contact with Charles Heist, whom she immediately gives the nickname The Feral Detective. The strange and laconic private investigator is full of secrets and has a surprisingly docile opossum in his desk drawer. He has a reputation for finding people that don't want to be found. 

Phoebe and Heist make their way across the desert just east of Los Angeles, navigating enclaves of hippies and vagabonds who squat in abandoned developments and shabby encampments. The outcasts live in two groups, the Rabbits and the Bears, and it's possible that Arabella is caught in the middle of a decades-long, sometimes violent feud. As Phoebe tries to delicately take her out of there, she realizes that Heist has a complicated history with these strange factions and that all three of them are in grave danger.

Lethem embraces his lifelong love of noir storytelling to create this landscape of violent escapism and obscured pasts, with the beauty of California's Mohave desert as a backdrop. He has captured the mood of the country, especially here in New York, after a shocking election result.

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