The motif of feral children was in critically acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem’s index of writing ideas for many years. There was the concept of urban feral children in New York City. Archetypal fictional characters like Tarzan and Mowgli. Real-life stories of feral children. A Pomona College course he designed on animals in literature had a portion devoted to the idea of the feral. All things feral fascinated him.
Enter the phrase, “the feral detective.” Lethem thought it was ridiculous. But then he came up with the character of Phoebe, the female protagonist and narrator who hires the novel’s detective to find her friend’s missing daughter. The detective grew up as a feral child. Then Lethem considered setting the story in Southern California. All of that coalesced into “The Feral Detective,”the book. Lethem tamed what started as a wild idea.
Even wild things have homes. Locating the novel in Lethem’s local terrain — more precisely, what he calls the “scruffier” part of the Inland Empire east of Claremont — was a process nearly 10 years in the making for this native New Yorker. His fascination with Southern California finally made it into his fiction.
“Suddenly, I felt I knew enough that I had been stirred enough by the local environment that I could write about it in a way that would be meaningful.”
The Doubletree Hotel on Foothill in Claremont and Some Crust Bakery in the Village do make it into the book, but the novel’s plot unfolds in the mountains and mostly in the desert (the 10 Freeway is there, too — with traffic, of course). Coming from New York, Lethem says the whole West was mysterious to him.
“California was a fantasy and an idea that I knew from the movies, and desert spaces seemed very imaginary; I'd pictured them from looking at Western movies… it wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I even crossed the Mississippi River or got west of where some of my family's from in Missouri and Kansas,” says Lethem.
Later, he lived in Berkeley for 10 years and began to occupy real Western space, not just relate to a fantasy one. His interest in the Golden State grew even more when he moved to Claremont to teach at Pomona College as the Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing and professor of English. As he explored places further east of his new home, he came to the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree. Lethem said what had once been mythic — the desert — was now speaking to him. As he observed, he saw it as a social and cultural space where “people in weird scrappy ways had made lives” with intimate histories and a lot of automatic libertarian freedoms, Lethem says. Desert-dwelling communes began to capture his imagination. And then his imagination birthed the two off-the-grid communes, the Rabbits and the Bears, he writes about in his book.
The story isn’t just a desert and its dwellers – as the title indicates, it’s also a return to Lethem as detective storyteller, his first since his breakout novel “Motherless Brooklyn” nearly 20 years ago (which will be released as a major motion picture next year). Crime fiction authors like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammett were formative influences on Lethem’s writing and the detective novel is the template he used in his earliest work, he says.
“Even if I didn't have a detective in the story, I used that hard-boiled voice, that kind of romantic but also cynical first-person voice was incredibly versatile for me, it helped me learn to tell stories...it has been a kind of a talismanic thing for me to use this approach.”
Returning to the detective story form was the talisman he needed to invoke a tale with the idea of ferality. Lethem says it’s like a poet reaching for the sonnet; the detective story is a strong vehicle to handle what he calls crazy material.
It’s material that’s also attuned to the current moment. In the book, Lethem says he’s exploring the gender divide, traditional notions of male power, its breakdown and the “mop-up operation.” The story’s crisis among the male desert-dwellers plays out notions of futility, violence and danger.
“Did I produce answers? No, I just framed the questions.”
The Feral Detective will be released Nov. 6.