Jonathan Lethem's latest is a bravura example of his verbal skills, supple prose, deep compassion and unpredictable plot twists.
Stories about heroes descending to the underworld date back thousands of years — the most famous, of course, is Orpheus. Jonathan Lethem’s “The Feral Detective” (Ecco, 336 pp., $26.99) is a stunning new take on this theme. Lethem is a prominent Capital-L Literary writer (his breakthrough was “The Fortress of Solitude”), but with “The Feral Detective,” he returns to the crime genre of an earlier book, “Motherless Brooklyn.”
But it’s only sort of a crime novel: it also trades on Lethem’s knack for mixing in other genres. And it’s a bravura example of his verbal skills, supple prose, deep compassion and unpredictable plot twists.
Set in the post-truth era, an overt commentary on the Trump era’s turmoil, “The Feral Detective” is narrated by Phoebe Siegler, a quick-witted 30-something New Yorker who has rashly quit her newspaper job in despair over the 2016 election. When she agrees to find a friend’s missing college-age daughter, the hunt takes her to a Southern California Zen center and into far wilder and stranger territory.
She hires Charles Heist — the titular Feral Detective and a true force of nature — to help. Heist is as inscrutable and laconic as they come, with a core of wildness that clashes with Phoebe’s hip urbanity. She finds Heist “infuriating and enthralling,” not to mention sexy, but he’s mum (at first) on his feelings for her. Despite his inscrutable behavior, their relationship deepens as the investigation takes them into the Mojave Desert.
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Out there, far off the grid, rough-and-ready types — back-to-the-land hippies, bikers, survivalists — hunker down. Some have gathered into tribes, notably the hardscrabble Rabbits and the savage Bears. Heist has deep roots in this hidden world, which allows him and Phoebe access. Their hunt peaks in an astonishing set piece: a grisly pagan ritual. But in the aftermath, Heist goes missing in action. After returning her friend’s daughter to New York, Phoebe is compelled to revisit the desert underworld, looking for another lost person.
“The Feral Detective” is a rickety contraption that sometimes threatens to overturn. But somehow it all hangs together, racing across the desert at hallucinatory speed and echoing our nation’s splintering social landscape.