Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reader, I Ate Him: The Gory Delights of The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Meet Jake Marlowe.  He's a millionaire, a chain-smoker, a sex addict, and a man who likes a good tumbler of aged whiskey.  He's also a paranoiac, has a hair-trigger temper, and is a bit of a nihilist.

Did I mention he's a 200-year-old werewolf?

As The Last Werewolf opens, Marlowe is given the news by his human "handler" that the only other known member of his monster-species has just been assassinated.  "It's official," Harley said.  "They killed the Berliner two nights ago.  You're the last."

And with that, we're abruptly thrust into the alternate universe Glen Duncan creates in his novel.  The first dozen pages are a rocky start as The Last Werewolf gives us little time to sort out characters and circumstances, but by the time Jake shoots one of his would-be assassins on a rainy London street, we're fully on board for the ride, dodging silver bullets and replacing ripped-at-the-seams clothing every full moon.

Spanning three months, The Last Werewolf leads readers into dark, brooding alleys as Jake tries to stay one paw ahead of WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) and his nemesis Eric Grainer who has made it his career goal to kill the last known monster.  At times, the novel reads like an espionage thriller (complete with double agents and secret identities) from John Le Carre or Graham Greene, but sprinkled with a liberal dose of sex and violence.

The bedsheets-and-blood scenes are told with gusto and eye-averting detail.  Fair warning to readers with delicate sensibilities: Duncan never met an orifice or bodily fluid he didn't like.  The killing--or "feeding," as Jake puts it--is erotically charged and graphically described at every turn.
Yet here was the flesh that took my teeth in helpless succulence and the warm sour fountain of blood, the puncture moment that never gets old but stops being enough.

Jake has been around a long time and survived a tumultuous history ("I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God, and in the United States when Wall Street reduced the American Dream to a broken suitcase and a worn-out shoe"), so he can be forgiven for having a cold cynical attitude toward humanity. The Curse is "unencumbered by aesthetics or fair play," he says.  Eating people is just a coping mechanism for things like the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

To complicate matters, he's a sensitive werewolf, both emotionally and physically.  His nerves are like a million long hairs poking from his skin--he feels everything.  Duncan renders this hyperkinetic awareness in prose that has its roots in 19th-century Gothic literature.  Marlowe falls somewhere between the mute brutality of Frankenstein's monster and the refined elegance of Dracula--but with a twist of James Bond thrown into the mix.  The Last Werewolf is, at its bloody heart, a meditation on the nature of our society's violence and our moral obligations.  Jake Marlowe is a modern Boswell chronicling the Age of Horror.
There's a view that the only thing to do with atrocity is chronicle it. Facts, not feelings. Give us the dates and numbers but stay out of Hitler's head. That's all well and good when the chronicler is outside the atrocity. It won't wash when the chronicler is the atrocity.
Jake both man and monster, "a cocktail of contraries."  We can all relate, whether or not we howl at the moon once a month.

Duncan has crafted a novel that in its own way could transform paranormal literature for the better.  The Last Werewolf goes deep and metaphysical with frequent references to Kierkegaard and Freud, but remains entertaining enough at the Stephen King level.  Duncan's description of the inner wolf is so beautifully vivid that we'll never look at all those second-rate CGI shape-shifting scenes in movies the same way again:
In my dreams a small wolf slept inside me and it wasn't comfortable. It moved its heels and elbows and paws, struggled to make space between my lungs, stomach, bladder. Occasionally a scrabbling claw punctured something and I woke....I knew what it was dreaming. It was dreaming of being born. The form and scale of its occupancy shifted. Sometimes its legs were in my legs, its head in my head, its paws in my hands. Other times it was barely the size of a kitten, heartburn hot and fidgety under my sternum. I'd wake and for a moment feel my face changed, reach up to touch the muzzle that wasn't there.
If The Passage by Justin Cronin gave us the vampire novel we'd been waiting for, then Glen Duncan delivers the werewolf saga we deserve.  Okay, I'll say it: this is the kind of book that only comes around once in a blue moon.