Here comes another novel fighting to be leader of the pack: “Red Moon,” by Benjamin Percy. He’s written for high-profile magazines, published a few books with a small press (Graywolf — not kidding!) and won prestigious awards that have no effect on sales.
Now, if his big, new corporate publisher can pull it off, begins the miraculous transformation into a monstrous bestseller. “Red Moon” arrives with a well-timed publicity campaign, including an excerpt in Esquire, a video trailer released by Entertainment Weekly, and a flattering blurb from John Irving (no connection whatsoever to the slavish profile that Percy wrote about Irving in Time last summer).
But enough pawing and scratching at the ground: Is “Red Moon” any good?
It certainly gets off to a fantastic start. In the opening chapter, werewolf terrorists bring down three passenger planes simultaneously. We’re in one of those doomed aircraft as the monster bursts out of the bathroom “like a gray wraith, a blurred mass of hair and muscle and claws.” (Why do I always get stuck using the bathroom right after that guy?) Things don’t go well for the passengers: “Ropes of intestine are yanked out of a belly,” Percy writes in a glistening flash of gore. “A neck is chewed through in a terrible kiss.” These coordinated attacks shock the nation and inflame the ongoing debate about “lycan” civil rights.
We quickly learn that in this alternative America, 5 percent of the population is infected with a prion that causes something like mad cow disease or, in this case, mad dog disease. When aroused, stressed or excited, carriers spontaneously transform into ravenous beasts. For decades the population has coexisted in relative peace by adhering to mandatory drug therapy: “a chemical cocktail of antipsychotics” called Volpexx that keeps their inner demons in check. If you lived in this book, you’d tell your neighbors that some of your best friends are lycans. Heck, these lycans drive Priuses! More people are killed each year by sharks than werewolves, but you know how the media sensationalize everything.
Still, the terror attacks in the sky aggravate the country’s simmering fears of the enemy within. Liberals claim we wouldn’t be provoking grisly assaults if U.S. troops got out of the uranium-rich Lupine Republic founded near Finland in 1948. But lycanphobic politicians (you know who you are) exploit the tragedy and call for a crackdown on the werewolf population. Nefarious government agents assassinate troublemakers under the authority of the Patriot Act (apparently, Dracula is easier to kill than John Yoo’s ghastly legacy). White supremacists lynch werewolf suspects, and lycan terrorists lash out with ever more devastating weapons, propelling the country toward an apocalyptic confrontation. (Not surprisingly, as civilization collapses, Percy notes that Amazon.com “almost” fails.)
This story of violent national convulsions plays out over more than 500 pages — such bloating is one of the darker symptoms of Stephen King’s children. But the narrative never drags, never even has a chance. Percy rotates constantly through half a dozen story lines, lingering over each no more than a few pages at a time. His prose is smart and brisk and often poetic, but as political allegory, “Red Moon” has all the subtlety of a canine ripping your face off. The allusions to Sept. 11, Islamofascism, Iraq, homophobia, cochlear implants, anti-Semitism, AIDS, racism, the ’60s, the Weather Underground — they all howl at us. To what end? Aside from little sparks of recognition, replacing a variety of real contemporary causes with imaginary werewolf causes doesn’t offer a particularly articulate critique of modern America. The fangs of this satire are dull, its instincts far too domesticated. Percy has mashed up Muslims, gays, Jews and blacks to make little werewolf-shaped McNuggets of social commentary that have no taste. (It’s enough to make one mourn again the too-early death in 2006 of Octavia Butler, whose science fiction and horror explored racial themes in the most complex and unsettling ways.)
Fortunately, “Red Moon” usually stays focused on two appealing young characters: Claire is a high school lycan whose skin is “the softest gray-white imaginable, as if she had been soaking for years in a bath of moonlight.” She has no idea her parents were such radicals until a demonic government agent murders them in the opening pages and sets her running for her life. Soon, she crosses paths with Patrick, a pure-hearted teen determined to follow his soldier-father and fight terrorists in the Lupine Republic. You can’t help but root for these two love-dogs: They’re like Romeo and Juliet with fur and deadly halitosis.
If only the novel stayed with them and their steely family members. Claire’s survivalist aunt makes Lara Croft look wimpy, and her opponents are deliciously nasty. Percy knows how to draw intense, dramatic scenes as the world goes feral, and he’s so restrained with the bloody bits that when the entrails spill out, they’re even more shocking.
But whenever “Red Moon” rotates to the medical researcher working on a lycan vaccine, the story grows limp. The many scenes involving an ambitious governor of Oregon are eye-crossingly silly. We can believe in a gun-toting, slogan-slinging politician — we’ve seen him in real life — but there’s no convincing sense here of the complicated structure and staff that surround such an executive. It’s much easier to accept that people can instantly morph into wolves than to accept that this man is running for president of the United States.
If I seem to be chewing too much on the book’s flaws, it’s only because Percy can turn his lyrical prose to such elegantly macabre ends and because “Red Moon” has such grand ambitions, which a more aggressive editor could have helped it realize.
Clearly, we’re in for a sequel; this shaggy-dog story ends on a troubling, open-ended note that practically requires one. Let’s hope Percy goes all Freddy Krueger on the flabby political story line and sticks with what he knows best: tooth and claw.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.