Monday, June 4, 2012

The Wolf Gift

Series: Stand-Alone
Genre: Adventure
Author: Anne Rice
Publisher: Knopf

When I heard Anne Rice was writing a werewolf novel, my eyebrows were raised. Her novels are, after all, one of the major touchstones of modern urban fantasy, second only to Chris Claremont's run on X-Men in their influence. So the fact that she's writing a werewolf novel feels like a personal stamp of approval; a rebuttal to the people who think of the current craze for things lycanthropic as just another passing fad. This is, after all, not some newbie hoping to make it big; this is someone who knows what she's doing, and she thinks the subject has storytelling potential. And, as expected of a writer of her experience, she fulfills that potential on a level that most don't bother reaching for.


Reuben Golding is a trust-fund kid with a degree in English who works for a San Francisco newspaper while  hoping to someday do something more significant with his life. The job has him working on some interesting stories, but a house at Nideck Point does not initially appear to be one of them. The owner of the mansion, Felix Nideck, has been missing presumed dead for nearly twenty years, and his heir Marchent Nideck is trying to put it up for sale. Reuben is sent upstate into redwood country to do a piece on it, but once he sees the grand mansion Reuben falls in love with it. He also falls for Marchent, and a night spent together in bed is interrupted when Marchent's wicked cousins break in and kill her. The murderers are then themselves murdered by a strange beast, who also bites Reuben in the melee. Taken to the hospital, he recovers surprisingly quick, despite strange symptoms that his doctors can't account for. But after his release it soon becomes apparent that Reuben has changed. Convinced that Felix Nideck is somehow connected to the beast that attacked him, he sets out to try and figure out what exactly is going on, and how he can control the strange new urges he finds himself subject to.

The Wolf Gift did not exactly grab me from the start. In fact, the first chapter is hideously awful reading because it belabors the scene-setting. First we hear a description of Reuben and Marchent; fair enough, we need to get to know at least Reuben. Then we listen to Reuben and Marchent drop several pages of character and setting information disguised as sociable banter. Then we listen as the narration waxes on about Reuben's life. Then backstory on Marchent and Felix, florid description of his house's interior, and on and on for thirty pages before Marchent and Reuben jump into bed together and the fun begins.

Okay, that last part sounded dirtier than I intended. But the point is, I had to drag myself through thirty pages of exposition and description before the first interesting thing in the story happened. It was a chore. I slammed the book shut after two-thirds of that first chapter and nearly didn't pick it up again because I couldn't stand it. This isn't an isolated issue, either. The book's climax is around fifty pages from the end, and the remainder is mostly answers to questions that we hadn't really asked to begin with, seeming less like wrap-up than setup for a sequel. And there are scattered bits of it here and there throughout: Rice pausing the plot to shove Information That We Really Need To Know (But Don't) awkwardly through the narration or the dialogue. It drags the book down, and after awhile starts to feel like padding.

For all that, there are some important questions that are ultimately unanswered. In particular: why is it that, mere hours after they sleep together, Marchent changes her will so that Reuben inherits the house? The implication is that she was prepared to either die soon or fake her death as part of a cunning master plan. I was waiting for the reveal through the entire novel, and it never came. So... what? Was it just a contrived way to put Nideck Point in Reuben's hands, or is the answer being saved for the sequel?

Once the story gets going, though, things get better, albeit going in an unexpected direction. Much like its beleaguered protagonist, The Wolf Gift has a bit of an identity crisis near the beginning. At first it appears to be a mystery story with gothic and paranormal elements: creepy old house, family with a dark secret, inexplicable happenings. Then comes the crucial moment: Reuben wolfs out for the first time, and driven by a new desire analogous to a carnal urge, he takes off over the city rooftops to commit vicious acts of superheroism.

Yes, really. Apparently, Reuben now has the ability to smell evil on people, and his wolf form is correspondingly driven to kill the guilty and protect the innocent. So he prowls the streets under cover of darkness, visiting brutal vengeance upon the darkest specimens of humanity, and soon becomes known as The Man-Wolf of San Francisco.

Yeah, it kinda caught me off-guard too. But hey, if Rice wants to stretch a little as a writer, I'm down with it. And I must admit, she handles the new genre uncommonly well. A lot of superhero stories forget that these people are operating outside the law, dispensing beatings and even murder in the name of vigilante justice. Rice doesn't forget, and doesn't let Reuben or the audience forget either. In daylight hours, when beast mode wear off, Reuben agonizes regretfully over his actions the night before. He pens articles for his paper about how the Man-Wolf is a sad creature that should be pitied rather than lionized, and he's not trying to throw the police off the trail, either. He honestly worries for the state of his conscience. Underneath it's paranormal trappings, The Wolf Gift is unquestionably a superhero yarn, but it's also a brutally realistic deconstruction: A hero conscious that he is not a hero, no matter what anyone says, and tormented by his alleged heroism.

There's another swerve in the story, and this one Rice doesn't handle so well: the addition of Laura to the cast. Laura is an older but not old woman living a hermit's life in the forest. Reuben stumbles upon her after a night of avenging evil and hunting small forest animals, their eyes meet, and then they jump into bed together and fall in love.

Well, okay, it's handled a little better than that. What happens is: they meet by accident at night in the woods. She's captivated, he's horny. A passionate, furry one-night stand ensues. Fine. It's good enough that the next morning they want to see each other again sometime. Fair enough. Reuben goes home and does some internet searching to dig up her backstory. A little creepy, but understandable; He's living a double life, after all, can't trust just anybody. Then he goes back to her and they bone again, as planned. In the morning, they're in love.

I was going to say that this is the point where the whole romantic subplot falls apart, but now that I think of it, maybe not. In fact, there's a totally plausible explanation for it: shared loneliness. Laura has, as said before, been living a hermit's life for some time. Reuben, meanwhile, has found his life taking an unexpected turn that has distanced him from everyone he knew, so that he feels utterly alone in a strange world. It's natural that both would be somewhat desperate for companionship.

So, yes, it's love at first sight, but in this particular instance I can forgive it. What I can't forgive is that Laura then goes on to contribute nothing to the story. She doesn't take any action to resolve anything, nor does she inspire Reuben to do anything he wouldn't have done in the first place. The best she does is hold Reuben back from doing things that he would have done if not for fear of her safety, and the instances in which she does this are nearly irrelevant. She's dead weight to the story. The only thing she adds that couldn't have been added otherwise is a reason for Rice to add in scenes of sensual foreplay which... you could argue is worth the trouble, honestly. Rice is good at this stuff.

Yes, I'm shallow. Screw you too. I don't complain when Faythe and Marc hit the mattress for their contractually mandated once-per-book roll in the hay, do I?

(Watch that question bite me in the ass after I get around to reading Prey. Go ahead, just watch.)

Ahem...

I've gone on quite a bit about what The Wolf Gift does wrong, but said very little about what it does right. Ultimately, the good does outweight the bad, but whereas the bad sticks out like a sore thumb, the good is more subtle. I'd say that the most distinctive feature of The Wolf Gift, the one that kept me reading when it ran into rough patches, is the skill with which the characters are drawn. Aside from Laura, who comes off as a bit of a Mary Sue, nearly the entire cast feels real, with realistic goals that they set about achieving in a reasonable manner. Reuben's relationships with his friends and family, which is at the core of the story, are true to life and feel genuine. There is a bit of a stumbling block in that practically every named character is rich, which makes it hard for this starving artist with no day job to empathize in places.

And the story takes us to places, thematically, that are rare and rewarding. There's a very strong religious angle in play here, as is probably to be expected. Rice has had a rather tempestuous relationship with religion in recent years, and it's tempting to see this book as an examination thereof. Certainly a huge element of Reuben's disquiet with his new form is a worry about what it does to his moral identity. Even if you banish the whole "avenging angel" business, he is still driven to do things that his human self considers wrong or unseemly. He is driven by desires he doesn't understand and can't accept, but can't resist either. And yet, he also can't escape the fact that it feels inarguably right. If this all seems like a sexual metaphor, the idea occurs to Rice too: at one point she compares wolfing out to an erection. But it's deeper than that. It's about personal versus social ideas of morality, about what our conscience tells us is right versus the rules others set for us to follow.

So, no, this isn't a perfect book, but then again what is? The Wolf Gift is still worth reading as a compelling study of both human characters and of big philosophical questions. I can give it a very confident recommendation.

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