The good news is that Lethem is back in the PI game, and there is no bad news. The Feral Detective is one of his nimblest novels, a plunky voyage into the traumatized soul of the Trump era ... his celebrated parody of hard-boiled detective fiction is now distilled to a clear amber spirit ... The elements of detective fiction fit in Lethem’s hands as comfortably as a snub-nose .38. He can hit an old Ross Macdonald motif at 50 yards ... This Jerry-rigged contraption of Sam Spade and Mad Max could buckle under the weight of pretension and political anger, but The Feral Detective is too agile for that—thanks to its narrator, Phoebe. She’s sharp and sassy and always willing to confess her own contradictory feelings, which sway erratically from lust to terror. It’s a pleasure to see a smart writer having so much grisly fun ... What’s more, the plot maintains its centripetal acceleration, easily soaring over those swamps of Lethemian introspection that sometimes swallowed his previous novels ... Who can really be saved in our collapsing society is the question that rumbles below these pages, but the story races along so fast you’ll barely notice you’ve entered such dark territory till it’s too late to head back.
There’s a good book lurking in this material ... The Feral Detective is not it. This one begins losing parts out on the interstate almost immediately. The plot is shaggy and complicated; so much so that even the author loses interest in it ... This novel’s tone is closer to that of Elmore Leonard. It’s got a bit of boogie in its bones. Yet it utterly lacks the density and sure-footedness of Motherless Brooklyn. A central problem is that Phoebe is a ditz ... Lethem never gives her anything impudent, urgent or surprising to say or think or feel ... Lethem is such a generous and ingenious writer that it’s painful to watch him flounder. Is it time to worry that literary novels will be among the next casualties of Trump Derangement Syndrome?
Jonathan Lethem’s new book is described by his publisher as his 'first detective novel' since Motherless Brooklyn, his 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner. But attempts to pass off either book as genre fiction seem off the mark ... The Feral Detective tries just as hard [as Motherless Brooklyn] for offbeat scenarios and effects, but it doesn’t feel as meticulously engineered ... The voice of the book’s narrator, however, is engaging, and Lethem’s conjurations of the obscure California locales his heroine digs into couldn’t be more vivid.
Jonathan Lethem has not necessarily written the first great novel of the Trump era, but he’s arguably written the first great novel about the Trump era, disguised as a rollicking detective story ... The Feral Detective is the rare novel that feels like it’s being typed onto the page as fast as you can read it ... Reading fiction since 2016 has felt, for the most part, like an exercise in escapism. But The Feral Detective emphatically reasserts the notion that a novel can grapple with a cultural moment, while also showcasing Lethem’s usual demolition derby of literary and genre influences ... The only downside of finishing the novel...is that you’re robbed of what has turned out to be a fiendishly effective literary salve—a form of non-escapist escape.
Lethem’s writing weaves together the surreal and the heart-wrenching, and Phoebe’s strong dark voice speaks with the same alcohol-soaked despair as in earlier Los Angeles noir ... But going deep isn’t the only way to read The Feral Detective: It’s also one of the most unusual, unlikely, and un-put-downable PI novels ever.
These introductory chapters are incredible — it truly is a lot of fun to see Phoebe fall so quickly and so hard for Heist. Making Heist the honest and unapologetic object of Phoebe’s post-Obama rebound fantasy is a delicious complication of the femme-fatale tradition, and it’s great to see her unapologetic voraciousness respectfully, even somewhat meekly, received by the terse but game Heist. Lethem wrings plenty of comedy out of the improbable culture-clash romance that rapidly develops between the two, there is something troubling that develops, too. For a writer who is normally so good with voice and so adept at playing off types while still imbuing his characters with enough specificity and depth to keep them from becoming cartoons, Phoebe begins, as the novel progresses, to feel at times much too broad — a weird gestalt of awkward comedienne, working girl, and other tropes whose presence isn’t entirely exorcised by cheeky self-consciousness ... The plot, depending on how well the conceit works for you, congeals, or thickens ... By the novel’s end, most of my doubts were, if not totally expunged, at least leavened by the complex affection I’d begun to feel for Phoebe.
Here, Lethem captures the florid horror and the weird, nihilistic sense of possibility that arrived in the immediate wake of Trump’s election. Elsewhere, his tone is both wisecracking and stricken; its serious and comic notes cancel each other out, and what’s left is a cartoon despair ... The Feral Detective runs for nearly the same number of pages as Motherless Brooklyn, but it registers as much longer, both draggy and strained. It’s not just that the novel is loaded with lazy signifiers... it’s that [Phoebe's] aide-de-camp and eventual lover, never lives on the page—he’s a thousand-mile stare, a leather jacket—and that Phoebe’s incessant, effortful banter is as repellent as Lionel’s was irresistible ... The 2018 Lethem attempts to transcend clichés via different, worse clichés ... The real missing-persons case here is a meta one: Where has the sly, surprising Lethem gone?
The Feral Detective is full of pleasures and annoyances. It’s a frustrating novel and, when you set it on the bedside table for the night, you feel like telling it, 'You stay there until you can behave yourself.' But while it’s not essential Lethem, the book grows in your estimation in retrospect, and upon rereading, because of its ambitions, its sneaky tenderness and the relevance of its questions about identity and tribal warfare ... The plot is high on incident but feels meandering and oddly tension-less for the first half of the book. And Phoebe — Phoebe can be a problem. She’s our guide and conscience, yet Lethem colors her character in so slowly that she’s on the edge of a breakdown before we can grasp who she is ... Phoebe appears to be a mouthpiece for Lethem’s own rage, and she’s not an especially convincing portrait of a woman. It’s not enough to have her use the word 'menstrual' and read Elena Ferrante ... At its best, though, The Feral Detective is a worthy morality play about our warring impulses for conflict and comfort. It asks who we are when we lose, or cast away, everything that was propping us up.
Nearly two decades after his last mystery, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), Lethem gives us another, a funny but rage-fueled stunner ... Set in the days surrounding Donald Trump’s inauguration, this echoes with Phoebe’s explicitly voiced outrage and sadness about the country’s political right turn, yet it also feels allegorical ... Both Phoebe and Charles are compelling, as are the desert setting and the vividly realized descriptions of its dwellers, who, seeing their own country grow alien, have left the center for the margins. Politics aside, it’s an unrelentingly paced tale where the protagonists’ developing relationship is just as interesting as the puzzle they’re trying to solve. Utterly unique and absolutely worthwhile.
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 ... 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.
The plot of Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective sounds like classic noir, except rather than following the detective, it’s about the woman offering the title character a job. And that’s a problem ... Like the election itself, Phoebe’s story feels like a failure of feminism ... When Lethem fully embraces the absurd, the story is a lot more entertaining ... This journey-over-destination approach to mystery is deeply unsatisfying. Phoebe might find what she went West looking for, but readers won’t get a worthy detective story.
... a stunning new take on [the trope of heroes descending into the underworld] ... a bravura example of his verbal skills, supple prose, deep compassion and unpredictable plot twists ... The Feral Detective is a rickety contraption that sometimes threatens to overturn. But somehow it all hangs together, racing across the desert at hallucinatory speed and echoing our nation’s splintering social landscape.
Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective is part of this year’s crop of post-election novels, and while it’s not the strongest of its ilk, it might be the weirdest ... The Feral Detective operates in a noirish, apocalyptic register, all loopy fever dream logic. Ordinarily this kind of deconstructed genre work is right in Lethem’s sweet spot... but in this case, it doesn’t quite land, mostly because Phoebe isn’t a compelling enough character to ground the rest of this heightened world ... The Feral Detective is not Jonathan Lethem at his best, and it’s not the post-election novel at its best either — it’s a messy, trippy book that never quite finds its center. But there’s a kind of glee and energy to its messiness that always keeps it compelling. Even if you never quite know what Lethem is doing, it’s worth digging around in the chaos to see what gems you can unearth.
... propelled more by the arch brevity of its chapters than by any real suspense ... Lethem, a virtuoso stylist and brilliant scene-setter, here deals mainly in cliches ... Lethem said he felt he should be an 'honest witness, recording my own reactions' to the coming of President Trump. This he certainly seems to have done, but he has not quite escaped the obvious danger: that in doing so, the writer will turn fiction into a kind of febrile opinion piece. Transformed by the desert, Phoebe eventually finds she no longer empathises with the Angelenos who treat it as a theme park, 'conceptual artists and all-terrain-vehicle buffs and suburban preppers' – not to mention Brooklyn novelists who use it as a stage for their own therapeutic diaries.
Like any good detective story, there’s plenty of adventure, violence, some sex, and there’s [an] opossum, too ... It’s an interesting story with lots of the usual Lethem touches, but it offers no easy or certain resolution to the dissension in the country. Still, to paraphrase Phoebe, this story trumps anything I possibly could say in a review.
... Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective... pare[s] away our attachments to cliched news-cycle narratives and give us weirder, truer ones ... This is not a novel about the election or the Trump presidency, and yet it is everything that 2016 was: the power of women, the sacredness of male leadership, the division into two warring, long-entrenched parties. Lethem takes us out into the desert, removing the light pollution of those narratives we accept about civics, and in so doing, allows us to glimpse our untamed reflection.
While Mr. Lethem strains to flesh out Siegler and Heist, he moves the plot along nicely ... Mr. Lethem is always at least entertaining. I just wish I had come to care for Siegler—the narrator—and Heist sooner, instead of only admiring the author’s indisputable skill. It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through that Siegler mattered to me and I felt Heist was more than a mutton-chopped, chiseled oracle struck dumb ... In Mr. Lethem’s latest, self-knowledge comes at a brutal price but the emotional authenticity is well worth it.
Lethem is in his element writing about this far-out West — ruthless, sunbaked badlands culled from the strange brain confetti of Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo ... More problematic to the story is Phoebe — both as a woman written not always successfully by a man, and as a protagonist you want to spend time with. Set against Heist’s cowboy cool, she’s a sort of chatty, maddening mosquito, buzzing with unfiltered thoughts and bad ideas; too often, their mutual attraction feels less like true romance than willful plot contrivance. But Feral’s desert politics and dystopian wit still cast a sort of spell: a wild-goose mystery not so much about why or where people died, but how.
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 ... What might have devolved into a Coen Brothers–esque farce instead offers a dark reflection on human nature ... 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 ... A haunting tour of the gulf between the privileged and the dispossessed.
Lethem hits a wall in his forgettable latest ... The novel feels like it was written as a kind of therapy in the aftermath of the 2016 election—which Lethem’s characters frequently bring up—as well as the death of Leonard Cohen, who also gets a lot of ink. None of this can salvage the book, which features howling men and howling bad prose...making this tone-deaf Raymond Chandler pastiche an experiment worth avoiding.