Do you consider a rare steak overcooked? Does a full moon make you want to rip off your clothes and howl? Is lycanthropy your favorite four-syllable word? Are An American Werewolf in London and its sequel …in Paris your go-to date movies? If so, you might be a werewolf wannabe, but you’re not the real deal.
The new novel Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones, explores the “authentic” life of American werewolves. A short list of werewolf facts includes health advice (always take out the trash before bedtime so that when one wolfs out in the middle of the night, he does not ingest steel wool or the jagged tops of aluminum cans or near empty canisters of pesticide as his voracious appetite gorges on everything in sight), fashion tips such as wearing natural fibers that rip easily apart, rendering the wolf naked, rather than, say, spandex (this is not a nod to the fashion police, for, when the wolf reverts to human form, his skin enfolds whatever he might be wearing), and game show trivia (which, the narrator inform us, is how werewolves get much of their education, a high school diploma being a rarity in werewolf culture).
The werewolf family at the heart of this novel includes a greybeard grandfather of fifty-five, though much older in wolf years. When his last effort at transformation fails, he dies stuck between wolf and were (from the Old English for “man”), stuck in the doorway as he heads instinctively for the treeline. His twins, originally triplets in the litter, Libby and Darren, are left to raise their nephew, son of their deceased sister Jess. Nephew, sometimes called “young pup,” yearns to transition and models himself on his uncle in the way he cuts his eyes across the room or arches his pee out the front door, but as the years pass, he also feels stuck—in human form, where his mother had remained until she died at fourteen giving birth. This pack, reduced to three, is constantly on the move, roaming across the South, sometimes as far west as Texas, but most at home in rural Georgia or Florida or Alabama. Though the cold north would be their ideal habitat, there they would leave tracks in the snow, easier for the villagers with pitchforks to hunt them down as they have for centuries.
Interesting as these fantastical details may be, I find them less interesting than Jones’s depiction of the human pack. Calling them “mongrels” is perfect because, as humans, as the “were,” they are society’s outliers, the South’s poor white trash, whose long greasy hair and ripped jeans and dead-on stare—as their eyes change from brown to yellow and their lips curl over crooked pointed teeth—make you cross the street before you have to pass them, pretend there is something in the store window that has caught your eye so that you don’t have to meet theirs. They are the very outcasts about whom Bernie Sanders pounds his podium. But they would never vote for Bernie Sanders. Werewolves don’t vote.
What Jones does that is masterful, that touched my heart and kept me reading through the soon familiar pattern of fight and flight, is to take his narrative inside the rusted trailer standing in a weed patch or the shack on the edge of town that the family currently inhabits, their latest aging sedan (with different license plates fore and aft), still shuddering, like a decapitated chicken, from its all-night passage to cross the state line. There, Darren and Libby love, protect, teach young pup. They have virtually put their own life on hold until…until he is of age. If not for young pup, Darren would be ranging free across the landscape, hunting every night, rollicking with a series of girlfriends and siring his own litters. Libby, who yearns for the human life her sister briefly enjoyed, has mated for life to Red, whom Grandpa calls a good wolf, but, he says to young pup, that doesn’t make him a good man. Now Red has wolfed out and cannot return to human.
To raise young pup, Libby oversees his homework, goes to parent conferences, as when his second grade teacher feels he has put too much imagination into a drawing for the assignment What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. He wants to be a werewolf astronaut, and in his picture, eats the other astronaut. Libby works menial jobs, sewing fifty-pound bags of seed shut or cleaning offices at night, her long black hair pulled back in a severe knot after complaints that some of it fell out and stuck in the floor wax. Darren drives big rigs, paid in cash only, less cash than other drivers because his driver’s license is iffy. Their lives constantly ride along the edge of the financial cliff, so that when Darren cuts his finger playing with a silver throwing star (silver is to werewolves what kryptonite is to Super Man), his infection is so severe that he can’t drive. Instead, he goes hunting every night. Some nights he brings home only road kill since running on three paws isn’t fast enough for anything better. Another, it’s a horned owl, old enough, young pup says, to be left over from the dinosaur days and slow because, it turns out, it was poisoned.
Lest you think this novel is mired in despair, I assure you it is also funny. In this same scene, after Darren and young pup eat strips of stringy owl meat fried in a coating of cracker crumbs—and then throw up all the owl, they laugh so hard they throw up some more. They push each other over, fall in puke, roll rocks at each other, like bowling balls, then fall flat in the grass: a strike. Young pup observes, even if he died that night never having shifted, died, puke glued with owl feathers all over his body, “that would have been pretty all right” (64).
The novel follows him from almost 8 to 16. Who am I? What will I be, he wonders. He checks his tongue to see if it’s striped, studies the dark marks on his underarms that might have been dewclaws, sniffs the air for scents that elude him. But he also likes to read, and while he’s never in one school long enough to fit in, can never have friends, he is both scornful of and pulled toward human normality, just as a werewolf is both wolf and man. Jones underscores this theme by alternating between young pup’s first person account and chapters told in third person—by a vampire, a reporter, a criminal, a biologist, a mechanic, a hitchhiker, a prisoner, a villager—all selves that young pup might become. These are some of the most tender scenes in the novel, for here we see, even as the adults struggle to survive, how loved young pup is by his aunt and uncle. In Chapter 12, “Year of the Wolf,” the aunt and the hitchhiker are riding in the big rig because the aunt’s car has broken down:
A few miles ago, because the hitchhiker’s almost ten, his uncle let him sit in his lap. Steer the big wheel, even honk the horn three times. The hitchhiker’s fourth-grade teacher would never have let him do that. But Miss Carlin was still back in Alabama.
The hitchhiker’s aunt had written a note to her, explaining that the hitchhiker wasn’t absent so please don’t worry about him or report his absence. But they hadn’t stopped by the school to deliver the note.
Because of trails, the hitchhiker’s aunt said. Because of bread crumbs. Because their rent being double-late had happened on the exact same day as their Monte Carlo died. It was a sign. (176-177)
Being a literary geek, I usually turn my nose up at genre fiction, where the emphasis is on plot, where the story must be “high concept.” But Mongrels proves that a good novel can be these things and more—have both a depth of meaning and characters that are as fully drawn as those in literary novels. What genre fiction can you recommend that successfully combines heart-pounding action with a more cerebral core?