Often it’s what’s right in front of us — what we think we know best — that deceives us most, and is the most dangerous. .
So it is with Jonathan Lethem’s new novel “The Feral Detective,” a surreal mystery crackling with wit and menace, set in the general vicinities of Claremont and the Mojave, between the blurred lines dividing the savage from the socialized, at the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Lethem tells the story in the voice of Phoebe, a wisecracking Manhattan writer with a penchant for vino and uncommunicative men, who abstractly plots a “red-state tell-all op-ed” while stomping around Upland on a half-baked quest to rescue a friend’s missing daughter. A social worker directs her to the office of a shaggy, red leather-jacketed detective known as Heist, who hosts a possum in his desk drawer and secrets behind words he meters out with Morse code brevity. As the title suggests, nature — in the wild and the human psyche — remains the ultimate mystery.
Lethem will read from the book at Sunday’s splashy Red Hen Press benefit at the Castle Green. (He’ll also discuss it with Oscar-winning director Kenneth Lonergan at Pomona College Nov. 1.) A creative writing professor at Pomona College, he holds the endowed departmental chair formerly occupied by David Foster Wallace, a point he volunteers almost reflexively, and lives within walking distance of the campus as well as his literary subject matter. That includes the wildlife with which we coexist to varying degrees of awe and annoyance; the “demolishing steady sunshine” that can feel like an overheated meteorological hand pressing us into the ground; and a topography that hides much in plain sight. A native New Yorker who’s lived here for eight years, Lethem’s senses gradually awakened to the local landscape’s subtleties as he developed the idea of a detective who’d once been a feral child. He’d previously flirted with ferality in urban life, in his award-winning 1999 mystery “Motherless Brooklyn,” whose hardboiled style also reflected the influence of longtime heroes Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and especially Ross MacDonald.
“It produces so much meaning,” Lethem says of the classic detective genre. “The characters in a detective story tend to be cutting through social milieus, through class boundaries. They go into different spaces, therefore they can show you how the world works.”
How the world works in “The Feral Detective” is familiar yet disturbing, particularly in its depiction of sometimes brutal, off-the-grid tribes of desert dwellers who identify as either Bears or Rabbits — who can be interpreted as men and women or Republicans and Democrats, depending on your mindset. A politically fixated Phoebe likens an off-road gathering to “a tailgate party in a stadium lot,” in one of the book’s insightful passages:
“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. Here was one place … I suspected many of these guys could likely pack up and stow these vehicles behind suburban homes, even if in some cases the homes would be those of their parents. A few of the older ones surely had wives, or divorces, and underwater mortgages. 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. I saw guns—a rifle rack in a pickup’s cab, and two handguns inside open jackets—but they were slickly holstered, locked away, probably with their safeties on. I’d have bet they had paperwork.”
Similar to how Warren Beatty’s landmark 1975 film “Shampoo” was backdropped by Nixon’s election, “The Feral Detective” is shot through with withering allusions to Trump’s election, along with timeline-fixing references to the post-inaugural Women’s March and other citizen responses. Politics are inseparable from the gender issues at the story’s heart. For Lethem, it’s “not a political book so much as it’s about this imaginary space that happens to be a lot like our world, where men and women are trying to live in these interrelated tribes and screwing it up over and over again.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to force that kind of [political] thinking into the book,” he continues. “But Heist is kind of an abdicating king, right? He was meant to be king of the Bears, and they’re all waiting for him to take his place. One of the things I must have already been thinking about is whether we need power organized around this kind of figure at all to begin with, or whether it could somehow be declined or dispensed with. One of the disappointing things about Obama — it was a lot to ask, but one could have hoped — is that he didn’t disassemble the imperial presidency that Bush created. He stepped right into it, the increase in power and secrecy, as opposed to being more of a manager/bureaucrat. He picked up all that new stuff that Bush and Cheney had invented that made the presidency into this monstrous implement. That meant it was still lying around when he walked out the door and Trump walked in.
“So what if you try to disassemble power? Is it even something you can ask of the king, to make the king weaker or make the king not matter? It’s a very complicated question, but it’s a very American question too. It’s like what George Washington did when he said, ‘No, I don’t want to keep control of things now; pick a new one.’ Something like that needs inventing.”
Such provocative subtexts are the meat of enduring mysteries, and of independent fiction. Although “The Feral Detective” is a HarperCollins publication, Lethem gratefully accepted when the nonprofit Red Hen Press invited him to read at Sunday’s upscale celebration. Lethem will be featured along with bestselling “The Knitting Circle” author Ann Hood and award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson, and a lengthy list of additional authors expected to be present includes novelist Joe Ide, playwright and radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh, Los Angeles Review of Books Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz, and former LA Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez.
“I like that kind of grassroots collective publishing effort that gets outside the commercial frameworks,” Lethem says of Red Hen, before comparing the “wide, splayed-out space” occupied by the diverse Southland literary community to New York’s urban cosmopolitanism.
“I’m still getting a grip on how such a wide, disparate series of places can have organizing notions of community or a commons,” he notes. “But there are a lot of writers I love hanging out with and they’ve been very welcoming to me. So in that simple sense, I feel lucky to have been taken up by the Southland and maybe a little more so as I’ve turned my writing attention to describing this place.”
Jonathan Lethem reads from “The Feral Detective” at Red Hen Press’ 24th Benefit Champagne Luncheon at the Castle Green, 99 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 28; $175 for individual tickets. Call (626) 356-4760 for more info about event and tables. jonathanlethem.com, redhen.org, castlegreen.com