The Hunger of the Wolf
- By Stephen Marche
- Simon & Schuster
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Jaime Netzer
- February 9, 2015
Lycanthropy illuminates both one family’s history and our own modern condition.
All stories about families are stories about secrets. So, too, are all lycanthropic fairy tales — the secret life of a werewolf is a mirror for the unknown depths of our own personal histories. The blood that courses through us is always, in part, unknowable, and it is this universal mystery on which Stephen Marche lays the bedrock of his phenomenal genre-bending novel, The Hunger of the Wolf.
The story is of the Wylie family, of Gatsby-like wealth and equaled corruption. The novel opens with the body of magnate Ben Wylie found naked in the snow, and the son of the Wylie family’s housekeepers, Jamie Cabot, determined to discover the circumstances of his unusual death.
From there, and with admirable speed and clarity, the novel opens up across three generations, following the fathers and sons of the Wylie family from rags to billions in riches. So thorough and engrossing is the saga that, when the metaphysical element of lycanthropy is introduced on page 30, it comes as a surprise — but, at least for this reader, not an unwelcome one.
Marche toes the line between genres masterfully but also makes use of the family “sickness” as compelling metaphor for the Wylies’ — and all of our — baser instincts, In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether the lycanthropy is real, because its function is so fully realized. It also doesn’t matter because the strength of the writing in this novel is so unusual that most readers would follow Marche anywhere he led them.
The prose is somehow striking in its originality, in its poetry, while also remaining fully digestible. Marche’s metaphors and descriptions are a true delight: “Dale slouched into the old recliner in the parlor the way a frog plops into the primordial succulence of mud.” “She rose over him with her shipwreck eyes and the hot midsummer of her hair.” The second section opens with the line, “The party smelled of cocaine farts.”
The novel travels deftly across time and geography, and, as Marche is himself a columnist and culture writer for Esquire, it comes as no surprise that the present-day story, which follows journalist Cabot on his search for answers about the Wylie family, is wrought with particularly deft language and cultural observations alike.
But The Hunger of the Wolf is rooted deeply in its plot, and its language never boasts so much as to detract from the story at hand. The novel is in large part about wealth — the Wylie men live in our world, a world of money and greed, and must define themselves within it. The insight into this particular family’s obsession with and acquisition of riches speaks, of course, to a more universal American quest for the same.
It is here again that the choice of the werewolf is perfect: A werewolf cannot control his transformation to his baser instincts. There is freedom in those instincts, but they are also a punishment. If it is our own sense of morality that keeps us from greed, from sin, then what happens when we lose our conscience, when we give in to beastliness?
It would be tempting to write that the Wylie family saga is so compelling on its own that the metaphysical element is almost unnecessary. But, like any good metaphor, the lycanthropy illuminates a truth that cannot be seen under any other light, and the resulting combination of genres is greater than its two parts.
The Hunger of the Wolf is not just a werewolf-horror story. It is not just a multigenerational family saga. It is, instead, an examination of who and where we are now, and how we live our lives. In other words, it is an American novel — and a great one, at that.
Jaime Netzer is a writer and editor living in Austin, TX. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review and Parcel, among others. She has an MFA in fiction from Texas State University, where she was the 2012-2013 L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence.