The Inland Empire may seem an unlikely setting for the beginning of a Southern California detective story, but most of the characters in Jonathan Lethem’s new novel The Feral Detective are about as far from L.A. glamour as one could imagine. The book begins in the gritty nowhere of Upland, moves to the Mount Baldy Zen Center after the fall of its disgraced abbot, and ultimately finds its real home in the Mojave Desert. It’s in the desert that we meet the two off-the-grid communities — the female Rabbits and the male Bears — central to the novel’s plot. The two groups once lived together in hippie bliss but now dwell separately, in semi-open hostility.
Into this world steps Phoebe Siegler, looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Phoebe — who has recently quit her job at the New York Times — provides the wisecracks and snappy patter we expect from a private detective in a novel. By contrast, Charles Heist, the feral detective of the book’s title, is taciturn in the extreme. Phoebe describes his personality as “dead-flat unironic koan-generating,” but she finds him extremely sexy.
The Feral Detective begins six days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, and his presence is woven through the book. The Rabbits, for instance, clearly parallel the progressive, woman-driven Resistance, while there’s no doubt which candidate the Bears would have supported — if they had bothered to vote. Yet Phoebe soon learns nothing in this clandestine world is quite what it seems, at one point fuming, “Rabbits are no better than Bears. … The whole two-party system should be blown up.”
Charles Heist, however, was raised in both camps, and he somehow manages to bridge the chasm between the Rabbits and the Bears. He’s as tough as an action movie hero, but so sensitive that he cries when he and Phoebe make love. Like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, Heist has a soft spot for teenage runaways, and these lost children figure prominently in the book’s fast-moving plot. Granted, the whodunit aspect of the novel is fairly muted, but The Feral Detective is a page-turner nonetheless.