BOOKS: Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral De­tec­tive. Stephen Markley’s Ohio.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week -

Jonathan Lethem’s 11th novel is an odd­ity. It be­gins five days be­fore Don­ald Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, when 33-year-old New York Times jour­nal­ist Phoebe Siegler quits her job, partly in protest at her em­ployer invit­ing the “Beast-Elect” in for a meet­ing, but also be­cause she can­not be­lieve he has won in the first place.

Or­di­nary peo­ple might be the most ter­ri­fy­ing thing on earth. Or or­di­nary Amer­i­cans, I should say. For months now, I’d stud­ied them in the back­drops of the cease­less tele­vised ral­lies, stacked in those ver­ti­cal are­nas rever­ing the back of a blue suit and a red hat, try­ing to fathom what it was they saw in him, and won­der­ing where they went to, af­ter.

Cut adrift, she de­cides to track down her friend’s er­rant 18-year-old daugh­ter, Ara­bella, who has van­ished into the Mo­jave Desert, just out­side Los An­ge­les. Siegler de­camps west and en­gages mono­lithic pri­vate eye Charles Heist, the so-called

Feral De­tec­tive, who spe­cialises in find­ing run­aways. A fast-paced pur­suit en­sues and doesn’t let up un­til the clos­ing para­graphs.

In many ways, this is clas­sic con­tem­po­rary noir. Heist is strong and tac­i­turn, at­trac­tive de­spite his lack of per­sonal groom­ing and ten­dency to stare sto­ically into the dis­tance rather than an­swer rea­son­able ques­tions. He wears an idio­syn­cratic leather jacket, has three charm­ing tracker dogs and keeps an opos­sum dy­ing from a uri­nary tract in­fec­tion in his desk drawer. The work he does is solid, res­cu­ing un­wit­ting teenagers from the clutches of ne­far­i­ous desert cults. At other times Lethem sub­verts the genre with clever flour­ishes, such as in­tro­duc­ing a gun that is not fired, and by por­tray­ing Heist as lit­tle more than a lum­ber­ing slab of beef whom Siegler never re­ally gets her head around.

In­stead, Lethem opts to con­cen­trate on Siegler’s de­scent from twitchy, up­tight lib­eral mem­ber of the east coast ou­trage po­lice into a dis­af­fected feral of her own mak­ing:

In New York, that caf­feinated neu­rotic at­mos­phere guar­an­tees you think some­thing im­por­tant is hap­pen­ing ev­ery sin­gle sec­ond of your life. In fact, you’re just eat­ing shit. I mean lit­er­ally so un­healthy you can’t even look at your­self in the mir­ror. And you ride the sub­way to some job that barely pays your rent and the only rea­son you don’t know it sucks is that a thou­sand other peo­ple are telling you how lucky you are.

Once Siegler teams up with Heist, she is dragged through mud, rain, dust and heat as they in­fil­trate the Bears and the Rab­bits, two ri­val off-the-grid com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing

Mad Max: Fury Road style in the Mo­jave.

The au­thor goes to great pains point­ing out how un­washed and dis­gust­ing every­one is, al­though the de­scrip­tions of Siegler’s bod­ily ex­cre­tions read like a male writer de­ter­mined to ex­hibit his abil­ity to cre­ate a con­vinc­ing fe­male pro­tag­o­nist. Some of the phrases em­ployed are a lit­tle ripe.

Other than that, Siegler is a promis­ing if mildly ir­ri­tat­ing fe­male lead. She speaks with a know­ing wit, of­ten laced with jar­gon (“I was dressed to the nines, or at least the sevens.”) and has fil­ter is­sues, yet pos­sesses a jour­nal­is­tic knack for cor­rectly guess­ing the ul­te­rior mo­tives of the de­gen­er­ates she meets in these desert com­mu­ni­ties. Buoyed with de­ter­mi­na­tion, she throws her­self into the mis­sion, acutely aware of how sep­a­rate this world is from the po­lit­i­cal cir­cus play­ing out on the in­ter­net.

Many prom­i­nent lib­eral Amer­i­can pub­lic fig­ures vowed to up sticks and leave if Trump was elected. Siegler does so straight­away, cast­ing her­self down among the para­noid anti-gov­ern­ment loonies who see mes­sages in jet-plane vapour trails and ex­pect Black Hawk he­li­copters to swoop into their com­pound at any given sun­rise. At one piv­otal mo­ment, she in­ter­rupts a Thun­der­dome fight to the death by sound­ing a rape horn in one com­bat­ant’s ear and scream­ing at the crowd, “DID YOU FUCK­ERS EVEN VOTE?”

Lethem tack­les the thorny sub­ject of gen­der iden­tity with his cre­ation of the Bears and Rab­bits. The Bears, led by thug­gish Soli­tary Love, are an ex­clu­sively male group of for­mer bikies, veter­ans and des­per­a­dos, with an added sprin­kling of kid­nap­pers and per­verts. The Rab­bits, led by sinewy ma­tri­arch Anita, are fe­male heal­ers and eye-rolling

New Age dropouts. They are summed up thusly: “Men did things for women and then van­ished, and the women dis­cussed them.”

Nei­ther group is por­trayed with much sym­pa­thy. Siegler finds no kin­ship, noth­ing re­lat­able in their con­fused doc­trines. Both sides are wretched and un­like­able. They are in fact the de­tri­tus from a hip­pie utopia turned sour, a baby boomer fan­tasy wrecked by age and progress. Their grip on re­al­ity is hang­ing by a thread, made all the more pre­car­i­ous by an en­tirely new gen­er­a­tion of desert out­casts driv­ing souped-up cars tricked out with gun racks and boom­ing speaker sys­tems:

They hadn’t jour­neyed to this apoc­a­lyp­tic fron­tier hon­estly, weren’t fugi­tives from Viet­nam con­scrip­tion or SDS or LSD or of a Janov scream that never ended, like the Bears. They’d watched a movie, per­haps star­ring Mel Gib­son, or a YouTube clip, and geared up.

The fresh ar­rivals in the desert are ri­fle-tot­ing hard­scrab­blers look­ing for a way out of the sys­tem, desert rac­ers, Burn­ing Man-at­ten­dees and artists wish­ing to co-opt the land­scape for sound in­stal­la­tions. Even the Mo­jave can­not es­cape de­vel­op­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. There are no havens of soli­tude left.

As a snap­shot of al­ter­na­tive Amer­ica, The Feral De­tec­tive offers lit­tle con­so­la­tion to read­ers seek­ing an es­cape from the 24-hour news cy­cle that still ob­sesses over ev­ery move the 45th pres­i­dent makes. Run­ning off to the desert to throw in with the feral dropouts may seem like an at­trac­tive op­tion, but in Lethem’s warped noir, ig­no­rance is not bliss. Like the pun­ish­ing desert sun, an or­ange spec­tre looms over even the most re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. Siegler hints through­out at the truth she is strug­gling to ac­cept. The old world is gone, and the new one is a vac­u­ous apoc­a­lyp­tic parody where lead­ers bat­tle for con­trol of an em­pire of dust while we look on in hor­ror, munch­ing ve­gan pop­corn. JD

At­lantic, 336pp, $29.99

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