Sometimes the Wolf

  • By Urban Waite
  • William Morrow
  • 288 pp.

A father’s sins are brutally visited upon his son and family.

Death is both picturesque and plentiful in Urban Waite's new thriller, Sometimes the Wolf. Set in the Pacific Northwest, the book returns to characters and plot points from Waite's enthusiastically received 2011 debut, The Terror of Living.

Picking up two years after that story, Sometimes the Wolf follows Deputy Sheriff Bobby Drake as he copes with the release from prison of his drug-running father, Patrick. Father and son share plenty of emotional baggage, which is complicated by the appearance of two sociopathic escaped convicts who also have unfinished business with Bobby's dad. Their murderous pursuit of the entire Drake family provides an abundance of gruesome terror, set against a brooding backdrop of mountains and lakes.

Nature, including the titular wolf, also serves as a handy symbol to be dissected for literary effect — often quite literally, as scene after scene detail the gutting and skinning of some hapless piece of wildlife. The world Waite writes about is stark and bloody, and he wastes no time making that clear.

Waite's style has been called "lean," as well as "sinewy" and "muscular" — which his descriptions of animal corpses certainly are — and has earned the author comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. In Sometimes the Wolf, the dark, terse beauty of the prose shapes a tale that feels solid and visceral. Yet the overall effect is far flatter than that evoked by McCarthy's wheeling, circling poetics.

One problem is that Waite's style leans heavily on absolute phrases to provide information and set the book’s tone: "The sound of the interstate moving beneath them, the thrum of the tires on the asphalt and the radio turned on low against the quiet"; "Splinters of wood all across the floor and the big man taking a step back with the deer shot in his flesh."

Such constructions allow Waite to zoom in tightly on chosen moments with freeze-frame clarity. This method serves him well, for the most part; he selects telling details and renders them with exquisite care. Over nearly 300 pages, however, the technique becomes distracting, giving the impression that the author has merely sketched out a list of observations for each scene, intending to come back and turn them into complete sentences later, if he has the time.

But there is no time. Waite's story ricochets unrelentingly between gloomy, ominous backcountry tedium and the frantic delirium of violence. Bobby Drake's wife and grandfather are quickly sucked into the spreading sinkhole of Patrick's crime, as Bobby and Driscoll, the DEA agent who put Patrick away, race to save them.

The author largely works the gears of narrative tension expertly, dropping readers from high to low with heel-and-toe finesse. Still, a few scenes seem like overreach (a murder by ballpoint pen comes across as particularly improbable), and dialogue tends to drag here and there.

The difficulty in writing about relationships between frustrated, emotionally repressed people is that it leaves the author with a lot of conversational space to fill. Waite's characters cope with loss, betrayal, guilt, resentment, and an ongoing string of murders by saying things like, "Your guess is as good as mine."

Such ambiguity and banality make the conversations realistic, if not riveting. "I know," the characters tell each other; or "I don't know," and the reader is left to interpret this as evidence of an internal struggle.

Yet these small sins of narration are certainly forgivable when weighed against the rewards of the blood-soaked, vengeance-driven story. Waite hustles the action along, down logging roads and forest trails, rendering his protagonists sympathetic and his criminals loathsome. Abductions and murders pile up in brisk counterpoint to the slow unspooling of a years-old mystery Drake's father brought home with him from prison.

Through it all, Waite keeps readers' nerves pleasantly on edge and manages to delay the story's resolution until the last possible moment — perhaps even longer; room is left in the final pages for yet more trouble to envelop the long-suffering Blake family someday. Fans of the thriller format will no doubt feel the author has delivered a satisfactory product.

While Waite has developed a reputation as a literary crime writer, in this, his fourth book, he appears to have reached a fork in the road where genre and capital-L Literature part ways. In the book's thin spots, you can sense an author either straining against the confines of the commercial thriller format, or running up against the limits of his current literary ability.

It might be time for Waite to choose one road or the other — or, as do some of his characters, to forge his own path through the wilderness.

Susan Schorn writes Bitchslap, a column on women and fighting, for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and is the author of the memoir Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, as well as the short-story collection Small Heroes.  

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