“The Feral Detective” is a brilliant noir title — right down to its misdirection. Charles Heist, the mysterious man at the center of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, is a detective of sorts, but he isn’t feral. He’s Clint Eastwood cool, all self-contained and aloof, capable of silencing a room with a glance. His native wildness hasn’t been domesticated so much as chained. He also keeps a live opossum in his office, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The good news is that Lethem is back in the PI game, and there is no bad news. “The Feral Detective” is one of his nimblest novels, a plucky voyage into the traumatized soul of the Trump era. Lethem is sleuthing around as he did almost 20 years ago in “Motherless Brooklyn,” but this time he’s 3,000 miles away from New York in the mountains of Southern California. The city that never sleeps has been replaced by the desert that never speaks, and his celebrated parody of hard-boiled detective fiction is now distilled to a clear amber spirit.
“The Feral Detective” is narrated by 30-something Phoebe Siegler, who quit the New York Times in a fit of rage over the election of Donald Trump. Regardless of the wisdom of that career move, Phoebe is now free to help an old friend who’s trying to locate her missing college-age daughter, Arabella. Knowing the young woman is a Leonard Cohen fanatic, Phoebe suspects that Arabella has gone to the Mount Baldy Zen Center outside Los Angeles, where Cohen studied Buddhism. But once Phoebe arrives in California, she reaches out for professional help and gets referred to a man known as the Feral Detective. “His methods were a little unorthodox,” she learns, “but he sometimes produced miraculous results for families with trails grown cold.”
The elements of detective fiction fit in Lethem’s hands as comfortably as a snub-nose .38. He can hit an old Ross Macdonald motif at 50 yards. The moment Phoebe enters Heist’s gloomy office, we feel simultaneously at home and on guard. “The blue light of his stare was the same as that sky: killing me,” she thinks. “Perhaps in mercy, he broke the tension, opened a desk drawer at his right. Of course a gun could come out. Or maybe this was the part of the script where he produced a bottle and two shot glasses. Perhaps I closely resembled the woman who had broken his heart.”
Clearly, Phoebe is looking for something more than just her friend’s daughter. “Before he found Arabella,” she thinks, “he ought to find me.” From the start, she regards Heist as “infuriating and enthralling,” and she seems to cast herself and Heist in a California episode of “Moonlighting” complete with zinging dialogue, ironic asides and erotic electricity. But Heist, “with his brand of implacable, mellow intention . . . and low-ebb oracular remarks” is working from a different score, closer to the grimness of “True Detective.” (And come to think of it, Matthew McConaughey wouldn’t be a bad choice for a TV adaptation.)
“The Feral Detective” enters that darker realm as soon as Phoebe and Heist venture into the friable wilderness far outside L.A. The terrain looks depopulated by a neutron bomb, and the people who remain here live off the grid in concrete tunnels, sheet-metal huts and teepees. “They were survivors of the catastrophe that hadn’t happened yet,” Phoebe says. Lethem lays out a paranoid world of atavistic passions, complete with a new paganism that divides these bikers, hippies and hangers-on into warring camps: Rabbits and Bears — a DIY version of Athens and Sparta. “This mountain has a certain allure for people who like to go off and do their own thing,” Heist explains. “They need bodies, extras for some of their . . . ceremonies.” When Heist and Phoebe find a pair of murdered teens grotesquely costumed in a pit, it’s apparent that Arabella has fled into a very strange and dangerous place.
But what’s most unsettling about these mountain compounds is how they reflect America at large. With this uncivil war between Rabbits and Bears, Lethem suggests a frightening reflection of the mainstream culture left behind: one camp clinging to fragments of civilization, the other consumed with machismo and sexual violence — “a rustic enactment of Donald Trump and Anthony Weiner and Bill Cosby.”
This jerry-rigged contraption of Sam Spade and “Mad Max” could buckle under the weight of pretension and political anger, but “The Feral Detective” is too agile for that — thanks to its narrator, Phoebe. She’s sharp and sassy and always willing to confess her own contradictory feelings, which sway erratically from lust to terror.
It’s a pleasure to see a smart writer having so much grisly fun. Is there a shootout on a derelict Ferris wheel? Of course there is. What’s more, the plot maintains its centripetal acceleration, easily soaring over those swamps of Lethemian introspection that sometimes swallowed his previous novels “Chronic City” and “A Gambler’s Anatomy.” Phoebe is too irreverent to tolerate ponderousness, and besides, she’s got a young woman to find, a hot detective to bed and a new future to make. Watching Heist claw his way through one extraordinarily gory battle with a nasty Bear, she seems equally shocked and thrilled by the turn of her life. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” she jokes as blood and viscera pool at her feet.
Who can really be saved in our collapsing society is the question that rumbles below these pages, but the story races along so fast you’ll barely notice you’ve entered such dark territory till it’s too late to head back.
By Jonathan Lethem
Ecco. 336 pp. $26.99.