Back in the land of adult fiction, this week I read Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. I know there wasn’t much snark or sass or pizzazz of any kind in that introduction, but trust me, you’ll find plenty of gusto in this helluva read.
The story follows private inquisitor Conrad Metcalf along his journey to uncover the mystery behind Maynard Stanhunt’s untimely demise. It takes place in Oakland, California, but it’s not the Oakland that you and I know. It’s an Oakland in some other reality, where asking questions is taboo, evolved animals and babyheads roam the streets, and everyone has their own personal blend of make, with Addictol as the standard ingredient.
Gun has all of the makings of your standard noir story—a crime, a cynical investigator, a trail of clues full of twists and turns, and danger lurking around every corner—but its creative and imaginative world gives it a satirical touch. It’s a shock when you realize that the woman Metcalf calls an “evolved sow” in the elevator isn’t just an ugly woman, but rather an actual pig. It’s somewhat funny by the time Joey Castle (an evolved kangaroo with something to prove) is shoving a gun into Metcalf’s gut. The weirdness of it all remains the same, but you eventually get over the surprise and get used to it instead.
Maybe this book has some Acceptol laced in its pages?
In addition to the stark changes to our reality, there are much more subtle ones that really make this world unique. Questions don’t get asked, and people will flinch at the sound of one. The news comes in the form of music, with the intensity varying depending on the topic. The police aren’t the police, they’re inquisitors. Even though these are just minor shifts to the world we know, they still make a giant, collective impact when reading this story. They help fill out this world so that it fits nicely and feels juuust right.
With all of the quirks and differences in Oakland-2 (like how Metcalf switched his nerve endings with a Delia Limetree who went MIA and left him with female sensations), I somehow still found it easy to get caught up in the simplicity of a good, old-fashioned mystery. Lethem has created a classic noir story full of unexpected reversals and very high stakes, both for the characters surrounding the murder and the P.I. himself. While Lethem uses the noir form and reaches its highest echelon, this story and these characters could not possibly exist anywhere other than this world.
This book may be laced with a certain amount of Acceptol, and maybe a little bit of Addictol, but there definitely wasn’t any Forgettol or Regrettol anywhere near it. This is a story that will stick, thanks to its extensive world-building and nail-biting mystery. It’s its own personal blend, and that’s just the way it should be.