Lethem (A Gambler’s Anatomy, 2016, etc.) returns with his first surrealistic, genre-bending detective novel since Motherless Brooklyn (1999).
Having long abandoned Brooklyn for the West Coast, Lethem has written a hallucinatory novel set in the desert fringes of the Inland Empire in California. Readers, many of whom should be absorbed by this story, will soon realize the author has more to say about the current state of America and his deeply fractured heroine than lies on the surface. Our narrator is Phoebe Siegler, once a bourgeois Manhattanite with a sarcastic streak, now unmoored by the last presidential election. Trying to break her malaise, she travels to Los Angeles at the behest of a friend whose teenage daughter has disappeared during a Leonard Cohen–inspired pilgrimage to Mount Baldy. She’s referred to private detective Charles Heist, a “fiftyish cowboyish fellow” dubbed “The Feral Detective” for his predilection for saving strays, be they kids or animals. What might have devolved into a Coen Brothers–esque farce instead offers a dark reflection on human nature as Heist introduces Phoebe to something like a cult living on the fringes of society—what might happen if hippies and outcasts left civilization, never to return, devolving into a tribal, ritualistic culture tinged with conspiracy theory. It’s a place where the seemingly laconic Heist has deep roots and a culture where his mere presence yields disturbing violence. There’s not really a mystery to solve, and the sexual tension between Phoebe and Heist feels obligatory, but Lethem fills his canvas with tinder-dry tension. The subtext is the division in American society, but the personal nature of Phoebe’s tectonic shift in the desert is palpable, made flesh by Lethem’s linguistic alchemy. “Old fears had flown the coop without my noticing and been replaced: I was positively aching to abscond into the Mojave again, the fewer road signs the better,” she says. “No cities for me now, or families or tribes.”
A haunting tour of the gulf between the privileged and the dispossessed.