Jonathan Lethem, author of "The Feral Detective" (Ecco, November 2018)

Jonathan Lethem, author of "The Feral Detective" (Ecco, November 2018) Credit: Amy Maloof

THE FERAL DETECTIVE, by Jonathan Lethem. Ecco, 326 pp., $26.99.

It’s a measure of Jonathan Lethem’s talents that his new novel is a didactic and overwrought mess, but you’ll probably enjoy it anyway. He’s that good.

Which is to say, just barely good enough to make a book like this palatable. The story is that Phoebe Siegler, a quintessentially neurotic and overeducated young New Yorker reeling from the election of you-know-who, discovers that her pal’s daughter Arabella is missing from Reed College. In some quarters fleeing Reed is among the surest signs of sanity, but not in Phoebe’s, and so she heads west to track down the missing undergraduate.

Her hunt brings her to Charles Heist, the enigmatic “feral detective” of the title, whose name rhymes with Jesus Christ and who is in his own way a saver of souls. Charles more or less raised himself, growing up among disaffected refugees from the modern world who’ve found a kind of dismal sanctuary in the California desert. Over time, however, they’ve splintered into a pair of uneasily neighboring societies. On one side we have the Rabbits, who appear to be mostly women, although a few Rabbit-friendly males of little consequence are associated with them. They do interesting things with cactus and local grains.

Their archrivals, the Bears, are a tribe of filthy, violent men who prey on women. Just as nostalgic Chicago Bears fans might venerate Mike Ditka, Lethem’s bad news Bears require a high-testosterone leader as well. And that’s exactly what they have in the person of Solitary Love, an intimidating ex-convict who rules, like Satan, over his own kingdom, no matter how infernal.

Enlisted to locate Arabella, Charles is forced to abandon life on the periphery of these warring factions, who coexist uneasily in a shared wasteland much as do the Democrats and Republicans for whom they are stand-ins. In fact, although he’s part Rabbit and part Bear, the virile but emotionally numb Charles was always believed destined to be the Bears’ great king, “their totemic progeny”. That leads, about halfway through, to a bloody showdown with Solitary Love — a showdown that exemplifies what’s wrong with those darned Bears. “Men are stuck in the past,” one of the Rabbits says. “Really, you could say men are the past of the human species. They need a lot of help from us with that.”

Did I mention the mysterious Buddhist temple? The slain young couple in rabbit and bear skins? The fat man with the van? The inability of the heroine to keep her phone charged despite a lot of long car rides? It’s all terribly confusing, but you won’t mind overmuch because most of the time Phoebe is such great company. For the most part Charles is her rescuer, rather than Arabella’s, but Phoebe repeatedly returns the favor. And since she’s our narrator, her ferocious intelligence and wit are continually on display.

“The Bears all started as hippies,” says Anita, the Rabbits’ leader. “But then, everyone does. Humans are born polymorphous and free.”

“Not me,” Phoebe shoots back. “I was born in a short black skirt. But go on.”

Phoebe is drawn with such energy and vividness that she will remind Lethem fans just a bit of Lionel Essrog, the manically irresistible protagonist of his 1999 detective novel, "Motherless Brooklyn." Phoebe is brave, sexy and brilliant, but she’s stranded in an embarrassing parable about America in the Trump years — one with a disappointingly inconclusive ending. Lethem’s narrative skills and high-octane prose will probably carry you through, but if you’re really busy you can just wait for the movie. This is a novel that would work a lot better as a screenplay.

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