Jonathan Lethem (Atlantic, £16.99)

To those unfamiliar with Jonathan Lethem’s track record for genre-bending, The Feral Detective will look like the first in a series of novels about a private eye with an outlandish gimmick: sniffing out wrongdoers, perhaps, or living in a burrow and foraging in bins between cases. What they won’t be expecting is a furious eulogy for the American Dream that combusts like a mad collision of Heart of Darkness and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

As it opens, Donald Trump’s inauguration is only days away, and 33-year-old New Yorker Phoebe Siegler, having already quit the New York Times over their deference to the “Beast-Elect”, is a ball of obsessive anger and anxiety. Even when senior citizens chat her up in coffee shops, she can’t help but react, “Perhaps they, like the Klan, had been lately emboldened.”

This is Her state of mind when her friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, goes missing. Knowing that Arabella is a Leonard Cohen fan who wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy where Cohen lived for several years, Phoebe engages Charles Heist in nearby Upland, California, having heard of his special talent for tracking down runaways. Heist is a taciturn, unreadable man in his fifties with Wolverine-ish sideburns who has three huskies, keeps a sick opossum in a desk drawer and, during their first meeting, is hiding a young girl inside an armoire. Instantly, and against her better judgement, Phoebe falls for him, fated to endure “a crazy oscillation, between scorn and amusement on one side and lust and terror on the other”.

The tight-lipped Heist quickly digs up some leads, taking Phoebe first to a rain-soaked quagmire inhabited by homeless people and then the snow-peaked Mount Baldy itself, where a gruesome discovery sends the pair out into the Mojave desert – back to the origins of the enigma that is Charles Heist, but further out of Phoebe’s comfort zone than she ever imagined straying.

It’s in this suitably apocalyptic wilderness that the allegorical weirdness hinted at since the start of the story comes into full bloom. Out in the desert, the split in America’s psyche is manifested in two survivalist tribes, the Bears and the Rabbits, who manage an uneasy coexistence. The Rabbits are the feminine, nurturing tendency, the Bears testosterone-pumped macho men embodying toxic masculinity.

For all the considerable effort Lethem puts into Phoebe, firing her up with a righteous fury which is discharged in an edgy attitude and poorly-judged wisecracks, he never manages to pull off the sleight of hand that lets you forget she’s a female protagonist written by a man. Heist, meanwhile, is underwritten, never really coming into focus. All in all, it’s a messy novel (mirroring, in its way, Phoebe’s sense of being lost and unable to understand America any more), but it powers along with a wild energy that goes a long way to disguising its shortcomings. As in the desert, where Phoebe finds that even the trippiest ideas can make a strange kind of sense, Lethem almost makes it work.