The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

EXT. RURAL MAINE, POST-COLLAPSE: 3 old pals, one nuclear-powered car

Jonathan Lethem has created in The Arrest an allegorical tale full of isolation and rejuvenation fitting for 2020. It's a year that most of us, whether by choice or not, have begun to tell new stories that just might invert the status quo.

Sandy Duplessis, who now goes by Journeyman, is our unlikely hero, a once successful screenwriter turned errand boy in the post-collapse, reduced to delivering food from his sister Maddy’s organic farm, meat from the butcher, and sundries. Then a not-so-stranger comes to town: Peter Todbaum, driving an aggressive nuclear-powered supercar. Todbaum and Journeyman were college friends and once inseparable writing partners, then the loquacious Todbaum became the alpha in Hollywood, cementing the deals. Maddy and Todbaum had a brief fling during this time, forever scarring the triumvirate's relationships to one another, creatively, physically, and emotionally. Presently, all notions of title, power, and self-importance are stripped away and a crunchy-yuppie frontier-type survival is all that matters in rural Maine where the story takes place. Todbaum is back in Duplessis’ and Maddy’s lives, wreaking havoc once again, spinning enticing yarns with his silver tongue, threatening to divide a unified community that he literally could just drive right through. Is this reluctantly reunited trio just characters in Lethem’s speculative gaze or are they practitioners of their own fate, crafting one last tentpole drama?

The Arrest is written in sparse chapters with the author creating a Luddite's paradise. Lethem is comfortable in his prose, having fun with this novel in that Tom Robbins way, à la Jitterbug Perfume. The author is more concerned with carrying the mood and atmosphere of The Arrest consistently forward than providing the minutiae of this post-collapse world. He’d rather coax us into an alternate reality that, eerily, may not be too far off in the future.

The publishers wish to remind us that The Arrest isn’t post-apocalyptic or utopian or dystopian, but, alas, it will get pegged as all of these subgenres at some point. Lethem’s origins are well-documented, namely in his collection of essays The Disappointment Artist; both of his parents are artists and activists, and Lethem was raised in what he describes as a quasi-commune. The Arrest is shot through with introspection concerning anti-capitalism, sexuality, socialism, revolution, love, reading, and the tragic art of storytelling. Literary journalists generally read into these historical tidbits with great interest, reporting on what has already been reported on with our own twists, but it is possible that The Arrest is Lethem’s own version of a Pillow Book, vignettes of musings strung together by a retrofitted tunnel digger with a nuclear reactor as its engine.

The Arrest begins a little murky, but Lethem does not complicate things by laying on adjunct made-up names and places. Rather, in a testament to Lethem's skill as a writer, he hones the novel into an enjoyable vehicle running smoother than that nuclear-powered tunnel digger.

The Arrest

By Jonathan Lethem
Ecco, 320 pp., $27.99

Jonathan Lethem will appear at the 2020 Texas Book Festival with authors Cory Doctorow and TJ Klune in the session "Cyberterrorists, Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes, and Were-Pomeranians: New in Speculative Fiction" at 2:30pm Thu., Nov. 12, on the Texas Book Festival website.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More fiction
<i>Transcendent Kingdom</i> by Yaa Gyasi
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
A Ghanian American scientist makes findings about herself

Barbara Purcell, Nov. 11, 2020

Interview With Benjamin Markovits
Interview With Benjamin Markovits
The Christmas in Austin author talks about his former home

Robert Faires, Dec. 17, 2019

More by Evan Rodriguez
Black Star Co-Op Talks Collaboration During COVID and 10 Years of Brewing
Black Star Co-Op Talks Collaboration During COVID and 10 Years of Brewing
The state of an Austin beer mainstay

Dec. 3, 2020

Texas Book Festival 2020: Mychal Denzel Smith and Isaac J. Bailey in Conversation
Texas Book Festival 2020: Mychal Denzel Smith and Isaac J. Bailey in Conversation
The two authors discuss Black Americans and life post-America

Nov. 10, 2020


fiction, Texas Book Festival 2020, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Robbins

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle