The Feral Detective


Deep in the Mojave Desert, far from the civilized world, two men face off in a ritual battle to the death. Surrounding them, watching, are members of the Bears and the Rabbits, two splintered remnants of a hippie-era wilderness commune. Then an interloper from New York inserts herself into the fight. As the combat comes to a climax, she yells at the perplexed spectators: "DID YOU FUCKERS EVEN VOTE?"

That's just one bloody/comic moment in Jonathan Lethem's The Feral Detective, a book that has attracted attention as, in The New Yorker's words, "one of the first pieces of fiction to address the Trump Presidency." Lethem, who has no love for Trump, may be working off some of his antipathy to the president here: The novel is narrated by a Trump hater dazed by the election, and that desert death match takes place on Inauguration Day. But he isn't above spoofing his protagonist's political obsessions. Besides her outburst in the Mojave, there's the time she tries to insult the title character by comparing him to a Bernie bro. Her barb falls flat, because he has no idea what she's talking about.

You might find deeper political meaning in the rivalry between the matriarchal Rabbits, who have held on to more of their hippie ideals, and the patriarchal Bears, who are closer in spirit to a biker gang. Once united, now bitterly split, but with ongoing ties whose nature is never fully clear: These two tribes form a potent social metaphor, though there's room for debate about what exactly they're a metaphor for.

None of this entirely coheres, and I wouldn't put this book in the top rank of Lethem's body of work. But it is undeniably engrossing. If it's also a bit of a mess, well, so is the historical moment it aims to capture.