Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Review: Glen Duncan's "The Last Werewolf"

Originally appeared in the

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Knopf, 293 pages, $25.95.

I picked up Glen Duncan's "The Last Werewolf" (2011) from the new fiction shelf at the library a month or so ago because I was looking for a good read and remembered that I had found Duncan's "I, Lucifer" (2003) enchanting.

The plot of "I, Lucifer" concerns the aches and pains, the trials, tribulations and daily humiliations visited on the title character — Him — by HIM. The details of plot mattered less to me in retrospect than the fact that the writing was so fine. I’m tempted to say, at this remove, that Duncan managed to make Lucifer — drug fiend and sex addict though he was — more Chaplinesque than Miltonic, more schlemiel than Satan, in prose as pin point as the sentences Martin Amis used to chisel back in the day. On the strength of "I, Lucifer" I rushed to pick up Duncan’s next book, "Death Of An Ordinary Man", and could barely finish it. It was a labored, melodramatic look back on life by some dead guy, the prose flailing away at being brilliant.
I’m glad I gave Duncan a third chance. "The Last Werewolf" is sharp and savory. Maybe the story of an ordinary man just didn't whet Duncan’s appetite, bring out his literary lusts, as the plight of supernatural beings do. Jake Marlowe, the main character and narrator of "The Last Werewolf", while not on the A list with Lucifer, commands no lack of anguished lupine charm. Marlowe — he knows his Raymond Chandler — is a werewolf with a conscience, disgusted by the things he must do on a monthly basis when the full moon visits the wracking Hunger upon him. Call it meta-disgust, if you will, because he's disgusted, as well, that disgust doesn't stop him.

"The Last Werewolf" is less the story of Jake prowling than of him being hunted. Agents of Wocop (World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena) have recently beheaded what they think is the penultimate werewolf and are now out in force for Jake, hoping to rid the world of his kind for good. They are opposed, however, by an upstart faction that wants to breed werewolves, treat them as an endangered species, and release them into the wild, as desired: to hunt the werewolf being a chase like no other. Besides the agents of Wocop Jake must face yet another foe.

From vampires, of course.

At this point I need to draw back and ask why the theme of vampires v. werewolves has suffused today’s media — from high to low, from English satire a la Duncan to Disney channel shows in which your average academically stunted teen can tell you as much about the vamp/wolf rivalry as a Civil War buff can about Bull Run. And I am simplifying things by keeping the ever proliferating zombie hordes out of the equation.

What is this about? If you have a hunch, do tell. (Let us crowd source this matter. The views of vamps and wolves will be considered, those of zombies for now not.)

Wocop, with its internal divisions, vamps with kinky designs on wolves, a wolf narrator divided against himself: there are times the plot is like a pileup on some highway of the weird and the reader reduced to rubber necking. What kept me going through those bottlenecks is that Jake Marlowe, despite decades on the planet, has a contemporary sensibility. When things overwhelm him he opines:

Something else was going on. (Whatever is happening, as the late Susan Sontag noted, something else is always going on. It's literature's job to honor it. No wonder no one reads.)


And here's Jake helping Tallulah, a female werewolf not yet on Wocop’s hit list, understand the vamp/wolf rivalry. She says:

"I know this is crazy, but I can't quite get over the whole vampire thing. That they really exist."

[This is funny coming from a werewolf, no?]

[Jake]: "It's the lameness of their having to sleep during the day. That and the not having sex."

[Tallulah] "They don't?"

"They don't. The desire goes. I mean, they'll tell you screwing's nothing to draining a victim but that's always sounded desperate to me. It's one of the reasons they hate us."

Here you have it: Werewolves are horny, vamps only thirsty. This, to be sure, is material to work with, as Duncan does. But I can't help thinking about great nineteenth century novels of involuntary transformation, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Emile Zola's "Bête Humane". Zola and Stevenson (likewise Dostoevsky in "The Double") deal with the sorts of terrors you could not explain away by references to a full moon or fang marks on your neck — deep fears, inner aliens, complexities that were far from understood. Are they better understood now?

In his novel Stevenson writes: "I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth. . . that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens."

Duncan does not take us beyond double nature, beyond wolf and man, does not entertain being "multifarious, incongruous." Perhaps, given all the explanations, from Sigmund Freud to Oliver Sacks, subsequent to Stevenson, it is hard to restore plain awe to his kind of probe into who we are.

"Talulla Rising" is the just published sequel to "The Last Werewolf". Talulla and Jake had their orgiastic moments, as werewolves will. Jake, well, is out of the picture. Talulla bears their. . . cub?

"The Last Werewolf" was a good read.

I'll get back to you about "Talulla Rising".

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