The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I first saw the title The Feral Detective I imagined Humphrey Bogart as a werewolf. I guess if I want that book I’ll have to write it myself.
Phoebe Siegler is a lady from New York who quits her media job after the election of 2016. To distract herself from thinking about the living nightmare that America is about to become she heads west to California looking for the daughter of a friend of hers who dropped out of a school and hasn’t been in touch with her mother. The trail leads to the desert areas of Inland Empire and Phoebe enlists the aid of a local detective with a reputation for being able to find people. Phoebe expects to meet the kind of low rent PI you usually see in pop culture, but she gets something very different in Charlie Heist whose eccentric ways both intrigue and infuriate her. It appears that the missing girl has gone to live among some of the outcasts that populate the area, and she also learns that Charlie’s strange history includes links to some of those people.
I know that Jonathan Lethem is a Very Serious Author who does Lit-A-Chur known for ‘fusing genres’. Which I think essentially means he puts tropes in a blender and then gets nominated for lots of awards unlike those rubes who just write straight genre fiction. That shows here with a plot set-up that kind of sounds like it could be a big studio movie trailer, but then things get weird.
I enjoyed parts of this quite a bit. Especially Phoebe’s shell-shocked reactions to the election of an orange nightmare to the supposed highest office in the land. This is the first book I’ve read that had some serious reflection on that whole stunned WTF-just-happened? thing some of us went through in the immediate aftermath as well as the creeping dread of wondering just how bad it would get. (So bad. So very bad.)
The plot also fooled me in the same way that it sets up expectations much like how Phoebe thinks she’s starting her own personal mystery story by going to hire a detective. I’ve consumed plenty of stories about young women going missing, and I was expecting Charlie to lead us through seedy bars to a serial killer’s lair or a sex trafficking ring or something similar. Instead we go out to the desert and start meeting all those weird characters living an existence entirely off the grid. That’s interesting as is Charlie himself who comes across as a complete enigma that neither Phoebe nor the reader can get a handle on until late in the book.
However, this a man writing in first person about a very privileged white woman leaving her East Coast bubble and going on a kind of journey of self-discovery. Which sounds like a really bad blog that would get turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. That’s problematic at times although to be fair Letham writes Phoebe to be painfully self-aware of this. Yet she also can’t stop acting like a whining ninny despite often knowing better. That gets pretty annoying after a while although it seems designed to be that way so I feel silly complaining. It’s still annoying though.
I’m left scratching my head over the whole thing. It was interesting with some very good writing, but I kinda wish that Megan Abbott would have done this book instead of Jonathan Lethem.
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