NOBODY WROTE BETTER DETECTIVE stories than Raymond Chandler or better science fiction than Philip K. Dick. Chandler captured midcentury California in prose as gaudy as it was precise: his screwhall similes clipped the corner of the plate every time. Dick was Chandler's dark twin, a man who couldn't write his way out of a wet paper sack. Yet his dystopian sci-fi, which saw the future as just a crummier version of the present, a carbon of a carbon of a carbon, nicely complements Chandler's vision of California as an ersatz Eden.
No one has better comprehended what a perfect match this odd couple makes than Jonathan Lethem. In Gun, With Occasional Music (262 pages. Harcourt Brace. $19.95), an audaciously assured first novel, he marries Chandler's style and Dick's vision. The result is bitterly funny hard-boiled sci-fi. Narrator Conrad Metcalf is a gumshoe every inch as stubborn and cynical as Chandler's Philip Marlowe. But the mean streets Chandler's hero once trod have gotten much uglier in the 21st century. The powers that be keep everyone narcotized. As a further spur to conformity, everyone is issued a karma card-a touch Dick would have loved. If you act up, the cops nick points off your card. In Lethem's future, there's no margin for error and nowhere to hide. Metcalf describes his feckless client, who's been framed for murder, as "the type of guy who once upon a time would have slipped through the chinks, back when the world still had chinks to slip through."
Trying to clear the guy, Metcalf takes on oleaginous crooks, treacherous dames and a kangaroo in a trench coat. The kangaroo is one of the "evolved" animals, genetic upgrades that are permitted to live semihuman lives and do society's grunt work. Joey, the kangaroo, is a mobster's henchman. The plot is merely an excuse for nailspitting dialogue between the wisecracking Metcalf and a gaudy array of nemeses: "Tell him next time he wants to talk to me, don't send a marsupial." And some of the wordsmithery is worthy of Chandler himself-. "The guy behind the desk couldn't have been more than fifty, but his face was all blossomed with red, as if his veins were working their way out of his skin in some kind of escape bid."
Novelists and moviemakers have fused sci-fi with detective stories for a long time, most famously in "Blade Runner," which is very loosely based on Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.?" But nobody has ever done it this well. Lethem has conflated the two genres to fabricate a future that is frightening and funny and ultimately quite sad-a place where pleasure is had for the asking but happiness is hard to find. Metcalf fights against this world with the only tools he has, a smart mouth and an "oldfashioned sense of outrage." He is a hero to reckon with, and "Gun, With Occasional Music" is a dazzling debut.