Part-time coastal Maine resident Jonathan Lethem captured the shock of Donald Trump’s election in his 2017 novel “The Feral Detective.” With his new book, “The Arrest,” Lethem delivers a similarly timely tale, this time in a post-apocalyptic mode.

Cover courtesy of Ecco

Some day, some academic will sit down and catalog the dystopian science fiction novels published during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them, of course, will have been written well before the plague first appeared. “The Arrest” doesn’t feature deadly viruses, but it illuminates a post-apocalyptic world upended almost overnight, leaving survivors to re-evaluate their lives.

“The Arrest” seems set in the very near future, on an isolated rural peninsula in Maine after a cataclysmic event has wiped out most modern technology. Phones, cars, airplanes, guns, the internet – none of them work any more. People travel by horse or by motorcycles powered by human feces.

The novel’s protagonist, Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, formerly a semi-successful Hollywood screenwriter, now assists the local butcher and delivers packages of meat and produce to the people of Tinderwick and East Tinderwick. Known as “Journeyman,” Duplessis doesn’t spend a lot of time wondering about the origins of The Arrest, accepting it as “the collapse and partition and relocalization of everything, the familiar world, the world Journeyman had known his whole life.”

Everybody else in town is similarly baffled by the origins of the event. “On television, someone said that the turning point had been when in 1986 the president had removed the solar panels from the White House. Then again someone else said the turning point had been when St. Paul’s epistle had been delivered to the Romans and ignored. You could debate this (expletive) forever.”

While on his rounds one day, Journeyman is hailed by two members of the Cordon, a kind of border patrol/extortion scheme that controls travel across the peninsula. They tell him that a stranger has come to town, asking for Journeyman and his sister Maddy by name. What’s more, the interloper is driving an atomic-powered “supercar,” christened the Blue Streak.

The driver of the vehicle is Journeyman’s long-lost screenwriting partner Peter Todbaum, until recently one of Hollywood’s most important producers. A motor-mouth ideas-man, Todbaum has crossed the country all the way from Malibu, enduring thousands of miles of tough terrain and hostile survivors, to be reunited with Journeyman and Maddy, who now runs the organic Spodosol Ridge Farm.

Something happened years ago between Maddy and Todbaum in a Southern California motel room. An assault of some kind seems likely, but Maddy doesn’t say and the reader never learns.

When they first met, Maddy gave Todbaum some feedback about a script titled “Yet Another World.” Lethem writes, “This was a tale of alternate nightmare Earths. One was their own version of reality, the other an Orwellian techno-dystopia, a kind of cyberpunk extrapolation from the Cold War ’50s, when the two worlds had bifurcated.”

Does “Yet Another World” have anything to do with the Arrest? As Todbaum worms his way into the community, there are metafictional hints that the story changes depending on how you look at it. As Todbaum says “You got your dystopia in my postapocalypse.”

Lethem has always reveled in playing with genre, getting his start as a science fiction novelist with the Phil Dickian “Gun, With Occasional Music” and “Girl in Landscape.” Lethem’s career took off with “Motherless Brooklyn,” a detective story with a protagonist plagued by Tourette’s, and his “The Fortress of Solitude” is both a coming-of-age story and a superhero adventure.

In “The Arrest,” Lethem expertly plays with the reader’s expectations. The narrative mixes elements of the Hollywood novel, the Western and the sci-fi double-feature. Characters name-check other end-of-the-world books and authors: “Earth Abides,” “Dr. Bloodmoney,” “Station Eleven,” “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” “Riddley Walker,” Vonnegut, Atwood, King…” There are a lot of snicker-worthy jokes and fizzy language.

Journeyman’s relationship with Todbaum and various town residents takes some unexpected and elegant turns, especially as Todbaum becomes a more menacing figure. Residents fear the Cordon will come with weapons and reinforcements. Journeyman, as usual, finds himself in the middle of the climatic conflict, unsure what to do next.

Dark as his book sometimes is, Lethem seems to be having a lot of fun with his re-imagined Maine. Offering a ray of hope in its denouement, “The Arrest” is a welcome change of pace after a scary year.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: