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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones (reviewed by Will Byrnes)



OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  It’s hard out there for a wolf. We’ve come a long way from the classic

What did you want be? As children, we all have dreams of ourselves as adults. I started out, a West Bronx local in a very concrete world, wanting to be a forest ranger, later an astronaut, later still, an aeronautical engineer, with the usual adolescent rock star fantasy tossed in. I imagine most of us had dreams well within the range of reasonable human experience and fantasy, whether or not we ever saw them through to fruition. The narrator of Mongrels, being raised by his aunt Libby, uncle Darren and his grandfather, dreams of growing up to be like them. I guess many of us want to be like the adults who raise us. Libby, Darren and Grandpa, however, are werewolves.

"werewolves, they’ve always been where it’s at for me. I remember being twelve, living way out in the country, and creeping up from my bed after lights out and pressing my forehead to the cold glass, so I could watch the darkness for werewolves. I had no doubt at all that they were running in these fast clockwise circles around our house. And that if I quit watching even for a blink, then they were coming in for us. So I’ve been thinking on the werewolf for a long time, now. I’ve been watching for them. What always interested me most about them, though, after the teeth and claws and transformations, it was the day to day difficulties of being a different, maligned species. How to explain why your pants keep being ripped up? Why does your friend’s dog run yelping away when you walk up? I spent a lot of my twelfth year trying to become a werewolf—maybe because I knew I could never beat them, so I might as well get out there and run with them. But nothing ever took. So, Mongrels, it’s as close as I can get, I suppose" - from Muzzlepress interview

Mongrels is a magnificent imagining of what it might look like if werewolves were really padding around in the 21st century American South. No effete vampires here. This is very much a working class wolf world, bloody, desperate, fearful, primitive.

Jones tells his story in eighteen chapters that wander in time and location. The narrator is a never-named boy (well, a teacher addresses him by a name, but we assume it to be a temporary, not a true one) we watch through his growth from age eight to sixteen, (although not in chronological order) the age by which those whose DNA is of the tooth and claw variety usually manifest their nature. He yearns for the change, even though there is no guarantee that it will happen for him.

Jones indulges in a bit of cuteness by referring to his narrator as the vampire in one chapter, the reporter in another, the biologist in a third, and so on. It’s pretty adorable, and works in a way to counterpoint delight and bloodiness. I was reminded of Joe Hill’s The Fireman, which employs a similar technique.

(An American Werewolf in London raised the bar for cinematic ch-ch-changes)

This is a peripatetic pack, more itinerant than territorial, always trying to keep one step ahead of suspicious neighbors and inquisitive law enforcement. They are very tough on the vehicles they somehow keep acquiring. And if you had the misfortune of renting a residence to them you will be making full use of the security deposit for cleanup after they leave.

Much of the fun in the book lies in the many specifics of werewolf existence. For example, Werewolves are paranoid about having dog breath, are always brushing their teeth and chewing mints. Some of the details are fascinating. Proper change attire is of great and surprising importance. Mating with a human does not bode well for a non-lycan woman who does not hew to the safety first mantra. Silver is considered. Education is primarily through TV game shows and family tales that may or may not have germs of truth. One thing it is not is at all glamorous. They encounter various sorts in their travels, WW wannabees, a stalker, an exploitative businessman who sees economic opportunity in milking a captive lycan to enhance his profit margins. While there may be no pentagrams, an angry mob with actual torches and pitchforks puts in an appearance that is part alarming, and part comedic.

Famous characters from American history are brought into the moonlight for a new look, and are guaranteed to make you bare your teeth, in a good way. The family banter gets hilarious on occasion (well, I thought it was pretty funny, anyway):

"Just when I thought I’d figured out what made a girlfriend happy, what would make one stay, I would do something wrong again and that would be that."

Something wrong, like, I don’t know, like eating their pet goat?” Libby said, without looking over from the game show glowing all our faces light blue. "

The initiative for writing this book came from an unusual source:

"Back in 2008 or so, I last-minute got asked to teach an open-topic Genre course. Like, the week before the semester. So I said sure—if I could teach zombies. Which I did for two or three or four years. Loved it. But then I wanted something different, so I proposed my heart’s true love, the werewolf. And it got approved, and I got some funds to buy up werewolf books and movies. So, cue the avalanche of texts here. It hit early in December of 2013, and I read about a werewolf book every two days, I imagine, and was watching movies deep into every night. My deadline was December 31st, too, so I shut down the course prep then. But my mind, it wouldn’t stop spinning with all this. So, on January 1st, my fingers twitching like they were going to pop claws, I sat down at the keyboard, started Mongrels, and had a solid draft of it down by the time the semester started." - from the Muzzlepress interview

If you have issues with violence, or with creatures small and not so small coming to bloody ends, Mongrels is definitely not the right kibble for you. There is a considerable body count, people and critters. If you are expecting a straight-up fright-fest, I suppose there are things in here that might make the fur hair on the back of your hands neck stand up. I lost no sleep after reading this, but I tend not to keep my head under the covers after reading a horror book most of the time anyway, so that doesn’t really say much. I have felt a lot more fear about the well-armed masses of the paranoid and twitchy who are locked and loaded across our great nation, and of blustering authoritarian wannabes than I ever will be of shape-shifting migrant workers driving crappy cars and watching too much tube. But therein lies the great value of Mongrels.

If you look past the tooth and claw you will pick up the scent of underlying content. As with the folks under the scope here, there are two levels. The wolfy thing, and then the irresistible portrayal of people, any people, on the fringes of society. I was reminded of Willy Vlautin, who also writes of working class people struggling to survive in a challenging world. There is even a Steinbeckian fragrance your enhanced olfactory sense will probably pick up. I am sure you have your own favorite authors who hunt in those woods.

How can you ever get ahead if you are always on the move? How can you get an education if you have to leave every school because the cops are starting to close in? How can you stay in one place, even without doing the changing thing, if it is only a matter of time before your true nature is revealed, and you are shunned or worse by polite society? Whether that shunning is because you are devouring the local livestock or because you are just, however proper your behavior, not considered the right sort of people. You can bet someone would love to build a wall to keep those people out.

The turf Jones writes of here is familiar, as he has personally traveled it a fair bit:
 ”We farmed, but we didn’t make our living off of farming,” he explains. “My mom ran daycare, or she would work at a tanning salon. Just all kinds of jobs. My different stepdads would work construction or in the oil fields. We always would come back to the same farming community in Greenwood, but that was just the place we’d bounce off of before going somewhere else. We always had a horse trailer that we’d pack bags and boxes in and go.” - from the Westword interview

CONCLUSION: So, bottom line is that we likee the lycans. Yeah, Mongrels may not be all that scary, but it is very smart, particularly in the imagining of WW-life details. It has something to say about class and society, and it is a lot of fun. It may not force you to shift your shape, even if you read it during a full moon, but Mongrels is delightful enough to warrant more than a few joyful howls, and if you get the urge to dine on a neighbor’s livestock after reading it, or even your neighbor, for that matter, at least you will know that you are probably not alone. Mongrels is a real treat.

NOTE: The review appeared first on Will's GR page.

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