Ron Charles reviews ‘The Last Werewolf’ by Glen Duncan
By Ron Charles,
Everyone’s always tossing in a werewolf to sex things up, but let’s face it: They’re never top dog. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was, like, into Season 2 before Oz went all furry. The full moon didn’t rise on “True Blood” till Season 3. We had to suffer through two undead years of CW’s “Vampire Diaries” before we got MTV’s “Teen Wolf.” And you can howl all you want about Team Jacob, but Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series clearly belongs to the sparkly bloodsuckers. Even Anne Rice hasn’t touched the old hounds (though she’s working on a novel about them now).
What is it about werewolves that always keeps them panting along behind vampires in popular culture? To see how early the indoctrination starts, check your grocer’s shelves: While kids have been biting into Count Chocula for decades, nobody’s had a bowl of Fruit Brute since 1983. And who’s surprised? After all, Dracula gets to wear elegant clothes, hang out in a castle and give beautiful young women hickeys; werewolves get hairy knuckles and fleas. It sucks, but anybody hoping for parity between these creatures of the night is barking up the wrong tree.
The real difference, though, is language. Vampires talk us through the kill, and that Transylvanian accent doesn’t hurt. They lure; they seduce; they hypnotize. Even the most romantic werewolf can only drool. And then he rips your face off and pees.
Well, prepare to have your monster world turned upside down. The British writer Glen Duncan has finally driven a stake through vampire supremacy. And it works because he gives his werewolf narrator a voice with teeth. Cerebral and campy, philosophical and ironic, “The Last Werewolf” is a novel that’s always licking its bloody lips and winking at us.
Jake Marlowe is a handsome 200-year-old man with a voracious libido and a hunger for human flesh that drives him crazy once a month. “Two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist,” he sighs. “I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.” Fabulously wealthy and wily, he’s now the world’s last surviving werewolf — “a cocktail of contraries” — and the thought of running from occult assassins any longer makes him weary. “I am tired,” he whines to his longtime confidant. “One’s own death-sentence elicits a mad little hallelujah, and mine’s egregiously overdue. For ten, twenty, thirty years now I’ve been dragging myself through the motions. . . . I really can’t stand it anymore, the living and the killing and the wandering the world without love.”
He may be ready to paw the earth and lay himself down, but the world’s leading werewolf killer expects the thrill of the last hunt, and he’ll do anything to provoke a fight with Jake worthy of his reputation. What’s worse, for some reason, those normally supercilious vampires want a piece of him, too. And so, just a few pages after Jake announces his plans to go gently into that good night, he finds himself instead clawing through a dark thriller that explodes with enough conspiracies, subterfuges and murders to raise your hackles. Not to mention such hot werewolf sex that you’ll be tempted to wander out under the full moon yourself next month.
On one level, of course, this is just James Bond with dog breath. Duncan gives us double-crossing secret agents, exotic locales, cliffhangers that drop down to other cliffhangers, lots of macho weaponry and fancy automobiles, and several very beautiful, very willing women. But what makes this a breed apart is the author’s deliciously gory wit and philosophical turn of mind. (Clearly, the animal kingdom is in ascendancy: It was only a few months ago that we got Benjamin Hale’s fantastically smart “Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” about an eloquent, horny chimp.)
As Jake eviscerates his enemies and dodges silver bullets, he tries to find some way to overcome his spiritual agony, crippling loneliness and self-loathing. But how can he remain sane when he craves to kill the ones he loves? “The hunger, in its vicious simplicity, teaches you how to be a werewolf,” he notes, and that curse ravages his moral sense. Not to take anything away from that other Jacob’s abs, but it’s impossible to imagine Stephenie Meyer’s werewolf saying, “You eat fast, in a worsening temper, with contempt for God’s creative vulgarity in yoking consciousness to meat.”
And what a well-read beast this last werewolf is. He can’t resist biting at any literary or pop culture reference at just the right comic or poignant moment. As his determined killer moves in, for instance, Jake says, “We’re like Connie and Mellors at the end of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, apart, chaste, happily purifying ourselves in honour of the coming consummation.” Feasting on one poor victim, he can’t get the refrain from Tennyson’s “Mariana” out of his mind. From Norman Mailer to “Starsky & Hutch,” from Matthew Arnold to “Charlie’s Angels,” Jake’s journal is a riot of allusions, including a chapter that begins, brilliantly, “Reader, I ate him.”
You might think that Hollywood special effects have dulled the thrill of seeing a man transform into a wolf. After all, it’s been 30 years since “An American Werewolf in London” won an Academy Award for best makeup, and the CGI wizards have grown only more amazing since then. But Duncan demonstrates the incontestable magic of words on the page. His descriptions of Jake’s monthly change — “an impossible accommodation,” when the monster tears itself through the soft fabric of his human body — are moving and terrifying, raised beyond the scene’s inherent corniness by the grandeur of his language and his ability to convey the horror of living alongside that ravenous canine mind. Forced into inarticulate hunger on his first startling night, Jake “dropped onto the floor dizzied by the inrushing night’s symphony of smells. . . . Matter, raped and rearranged, murmured its trauma in the quivering cells.”
Among the weird novels that Duncan has published, a werewolf isn’t a particularly odd narrator. Over the past decade, he’s given us a devil (“I, Lucifer”), a possessed man (“Weathercock”) and even a corpse (“Death of an Ordinary Man”). But this one, arriving during the Black Mass of America’s obsession with occult romances and adventures, may be his breakout book. “It’s a ridiculous story, of course,” Jake admits halfway through, “but history’s full of ridiculous stories.” He’s right, but few of them have been such bloody fun as this one.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
the last werewolf By Glen Duncan Knopf. 293 pp. $25.95