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Brooklyn’s John Lethem returns with ‘The Feral Detective’

Brooklyn BookBeat

December 5, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Jonathan Lethem Photo by Amy Maloof
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In his first detective novel since 1999, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Feral Detective” tells the story of a burned-out Manhattanite who teams up with an enigmatic private investigator to search for her friend’s daughter, who has gone missing in the unknown and unforgiving terrain of California’s high desert.

Soon after quitting her job at The New York Times in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Phoebe Siegler learns that Arabella, her best friend’s Leonard Cohen-loving daughter, has gone missing from her small Oregon university.

With a job going nowhere and still reeling from the election, Phoebe takes up the search. A stray credit card charge leads her to Southern California’s Inland Empire, where she is put in contact with Charles Heist, whom she immediately nicknames The Feral Detective.

A laconic, strange private eye with no shortages of secrets and a surprisingly docile opossum in his desk drawer, Heist has a reputation for finding people who don’t want to be found. Heist and Phoebe traverse the stunning desert just east of Los Angeles, navigating enclaves of hippies and vagabonds who dwell in abandoned developments and shabby encampments.

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They learn that these outcasts exist in groups — the Rabbits and the Bears — and that Arabella is likely caught in the middle of a decadeslong, sometimes violent feud. As Phoebe tries to delicately extricate her, she realizes that Heist has a complicated history with these strange factions and that all three of them are in grave danger.

In Phoebe, jobless and wary of the horrors a Donald Trump presidency may hold, Lethem has created one of his greatest voices, brimming with venomous wit and cultural anxiety. She is sure to go down with “Motherless Brooklyn’s” Lionel Essrog as among his richest characters to date. “The Feral Detective” is a wild, urgent, very funny book about what it is like to be alive in the midst of our post-election trauma,” says Dana Spiotta, author of “Innocents and Others.”

Image courtesy of HarperCollins
Image courtesy of HarperCollins


“In Phoebe Siegler, Jonathan Lethem has created a wayward heroine for our time: honest, sexual, smart and covertly idealistic,” she added. “As always, Lethem writes knowingly and brilliantly about weird, off-the-grid, feral America. In his ever-more-electric prose, he illuminates both the barbarity and the beauty.”

Amid the arid beauty of California’s Mohave desert— an expanse of rising rock formations, sun-charred mountains and abandoned developments where the risk of flash floods may be as big a threat as the suffocating heat — Lethem embraces his longtime love of hardboiled noir to create a stark human landscape of violent escapism and obscured pasts.

With “The Feral Detective,” the Brooklyn-born author delivers the memorable delights that have made him a treasure of contemporary literature: ecstatic wordplay, warm and deeply felt characters, and an offbeat sense of humor. Combined with a vision of California that is at once scruffy and magnificent, “The Feral Detective” emerges as a transporting, comic and unforgettable novel.

Lethem is the New York Times best-selling author of ten novels, including “The Fortress of Solitude,” “Dissident Gardens,” “Chronic City” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” winner of National Book Critics Circle Award. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Lethem has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire and The New York Times, among others. He currently teaches creative writing at Pomona College in California.

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