Even some 20 years after reading “Motherless Brooklyn” I can still remember the enchantment of reading it. Since then I have been a devoted Jonathan Letham reader. Despite being in the midst of a couple other books, I dropped everything to read The Feral Detective. I was more excited than usual because he was returning to the detective genre.
When Arabella, the daughter of Phoebe’s best friend, goes missing soon after Leonard Cohen’s death and the 2016 election, Phoebe, who is at loose ends after quitting her New York Times job in disgust, volunteers to go look for her at a California Zen mountain retreat Cohen used to frequent. She hires a local detective known for finding people named Charles Heist, the titular feral detective.
Their search takes them to the mountain and a horrific murder as well as to the desert where two groups of anti-social misfits aggregate in loose tribes, the Rabbits and the Bears. As the book is so much a reaction to the election, it is tempting to see the Rabbits and Bears as blue and red teams. The Rabbits are mostly women and children and more or less live off the land in tune with nature. The Bears are mostly men, violent, and rage-filled. Their leader is called Solitary Love, I kid you not. While there is potential in seeing them as America’s warring tribes, but I think that is a mistake. It flattens America to see them as this archetypes
There’s a fair amount of adventure and derring-do by the men. The women mostly spectate or wait. Even when Phoebe acts, her acts are impulsive and completed by men. When a young girl she has brought with her acts to rescue them, even that rescue is completed by Heist. Women never get to solve, rescue, or complete anything.
That would perhaps be less irritating if the narrator were not a woman. The story is told by Phoebe, an urban dweller meeting a reclusive man. She’s from the city, he’s from the desert. She’s sophisticated, he lives in a trailer with a possum. She’s East Coast, he’s Western desert. It’s like the “Green Acres” song, “Goodbye City Life.” So, of course, she falls madly in love with Heist though we don’t know why, really, except maybe, sex. He is mostly silent and uncommunicative, just very good-looking and obviously concerned for the feral children of the Rabbits and Bears whom he hopes to rescue.
Jonathan Lethem keeps disappointing me lately. The Feral Detective is a greater disappointment because I had hoped his return to the detective genre might spark the genius of “Motherless Brooklyn.” The book has many Letham hallmarks, it’s full of pop culture references, it’s sometimes absurdly funny and wildly imaginative. Imagine a Ferris wheel prison, if you will.
Letham has his usual word magic, for example, “That coffee was a wiper blade, cutting a window for my brain to peer through.” However, the emotion is false. Perhaps it is narrating through the voice of a woman. Can a man even understand the betrayal that election was, the rejection of this competent woman who could talk in detail on nearly any policy for a babbling grifter who can’t string two thoughts together? In rejecting the hypercompetent Hillary, America told women we can never be enough. Rejecting her for the orange sack of hate, resentment, insecurity, and narcissism, for someone so manifestly incompetent, was more than rejection, it was annihilation.
And Letham gives us Phoebe, a shallow chatterbox who highest aspiration seems to be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of Heist’s dreams. Why?