Created by Jonathan Lethem
“DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON, YOU STUPID FUCKING ASSHOLES? DID YOU FUCKERS EVEN VOTE?”
— Phoebe in The Feral Detective
Other dicks keep a bottle in the desk drawer. CHARLES HEIST keeps a possum named Jean.
No stranger to the P.I. genre at this point, Jonathan Lethem has already wandered into ShamusLand before, most notably with the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn.
Now Lethem is back with the genre stir fry of The Feral Detective (2018), featuring yet another oddball eye. Charles is the fifty-something “feral detective” of the title — a hairy, cowboyish off-the-gridder who wasn’t raised by wolves, but comes close. He lives with three dogs (Jessie, Miller and Vacuum) and the afore-mentioned possum, works out of a shabby office out in front of the trailer park in which he keeps his rundown Airstream in Upland, California and seems to operate by a whole set of not easily defined social skills. He agrees (reluctantly) to help snappy, snarky former New York Times reporter Phoebe Siegler find Arabella, a friend’s runaway teenage daughter. After a brief sojourn up Mount Baldy, Arabella (who may have been using Phoebe’s name) has disappeared into the Mojave Desert, where she’s apparently hanging out with the Rabbits, a mostly female cult involved in some sort of perpetual tribal conflict with the mostly male Bear clan. But both the Rabbits and the Bears seem to share some sort of secret history with Charles, much to Phoebe’s dismay.
It’s a wild, picaresque tale, sociological spelunking of the finest kind, with a plot that zigs and zags along, boasting a lot of talky talk (the high-strung Phoebe serves as the neurotic narrator), while playing host to a slew of eccentric characters bouncing around California’s High Desert (Eccentric characters bouncing around California’s High Desert? Who knew?) and a lot of moaning and groaning about the election of Donald Trump, plus a dash of grief about the death of Leonard Cohen.
Meanwhile, Manhattanite Phoebe herself is lost, worlds away from her liberal comfort zone, trying to come to terms with the “barking madness” of a post-election world that gave us President Donald Trump, and her growing sexual obsession with Heist. “I wished for Heist to uncrimp my foil,” she confesses at one point. Oy!
It was also an intoxicating release (at least for me), something like an acid flashback of suppressed pop culture memories, dredging up everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Ross MacDonald Lew Archer novels, to Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, the Mad Max movies, and several of Margaret Atwood’s books. Your mileage may vary.
And when was the last time you read a PI novel narrated by the client?
I’m not quite sure I “got” it, but I’m pretty sure I loved it.
- “The sky flooded in, without boundary. It was sick with stars, a hundred for every one I felt ought to exist. I had to keep an eye on them all at once, in case they began to fall.”
— Phoebe contemplate the California stars
STRAIGHT FROM THE AUTHOR’S MOUTH
- “Chandler himself was a very half-assed storyteller in some ways. He famously lost track of who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. He had that maxim, which has always been a very important and licensing one for me: When you don’t know what should happen in your story, have a person walk through the door with a gun in their hand.”
— Jonathan Lethem on CrimeReads
- “During the pre-Trump percolation of The Feral Detective, Lethem had been conscripted to write an introduction to an annotated edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, one of his long-acknowledged lodestars. ‘It refurbished my sense of how I identify with that voice and how much it’s energized me in the past,’ he says. Returning to the detective framework could also help corral his expansive thematic ambitions. ‘Men and women, the desert, the crazy urge to run out of this present American reality into this free space — it could have been a very crazy giant project, hard to locate the boundaries of,’ he says. ‘So I cut that down to size by imposing this very firm template. To me, the hard-boiled detective story is almost like a sonnet.”
— Jonathan Lethem to Adam Sternberg in Vulture
- “What might have devolved into a Coen Brothers–esque farce instead offers a dark reflection on human nature… The subtext is the division in American society, but the personal nature of Phoebe’s tectonic shift in the desert is palpable, made flesh by Lethem’s linguistic alchemy… A haunting tour of the gulf between the privileged and the dispossessed”
- “A new kind of crime novel for an Age of Extremes”
- “Like The Crying of Lot 49 as written and directed by Elaine May, The Feral Detective is hilarious and terrifying and wrenching. Phoebe is one of the grandest, funniest heroes I’ve come upon in a long time.”
— Megan Abbott
- “I want to read a shelf of Heist. I want to make him my new Travis McGee, and that’s, seriously, the highest praise I know.”
— Joshua Cohen
- “The novel feels like it was written as a kind of therapy in the aftermath of the 2016 election… (a) tone-deaf Raymond Chandler pastiche… worth avoiding.”
— Publisher’s Weekly
- “I was positively aching to abscond into the Mojave again, the fewer road signs the better… No cities for me now, or families or tribes.”
— Phoebe in The Feral Detective
- The Feral Detective (2018) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- They Wrote What?
Famous Writers Who Have Dipped Their Toes in the P.I. Pool
- Jonathan Lethem on Detectives, Frontiers and Utopias
Lily Meyer chats with the author. (CrimeReads, November 2018)