"Sister Wolf" is the novel I'll be recommending to all my friends, but with the hope that none asks the anti-literary, "What's it about?" The book is mock tragedy and true tragedy, and to attempt a summary is to risk sounding like a mad projectionist mixing clips from "Dracula," "Wuthering Heights," "Lolita," "Mayerling" and "The World of Henry Orient."
The plot is not complicated, though. It is, in fact, myth-simple. Moving it along is a parade of star-crossed characters whose lives are shaped by quirky mishaps.
Marit Deym, descended from the Magyars, harbors wolves on her Bershires estate. She is in her 20s, rich, haughty, reclusive, grubby and bright. Her best friend, Lola, is an audacious womanizer -- or maybe girlizer, since she likes her playmates young. Sample Lola, who "found her women out of town, and never gave them her address or telephone number. She used Virginia Taft as her nom de guerre. ('Who the hell was Virginia Taft?' She was my only failure; I'll tell you the whole story when we're old ladies.')"
Marit and Lola trade outrageously funny talk and would have gone on doing so had not the wolves, one moonlight night, ushered Gabriel to Marit's door. And her bed. The puny Gabriel, with his "wide penitential streak," quite undoes poor Marit, but not before Arensberg can give the pair a few of the best and brightest bedroom scenes ever to appear in print.
Meanwhile, the author sidesteps to introduce us to lesser characters in the "Sister Wolf" world. Though their parts are small, the author lets her descriptive juices run full flow. Witness:
"The Commander was tall and gray, with seven strands of hair. His limbs and parts were so attenuated that he seemed to float. His bones did not join and lock, as in mortal vertebrates; the Divine Will held his skelton inside his skin, instead of joints. His arms seemed to be the normal length for his unusual height, but outstretched, their span was as startling as a condor's wings."
Arensberg spills over even when the word count would suggest that she's releasing just a trickle. Horty, for instance, with a walk-in part, is proclaimed "an armchair sapphic." And young men, Arensberg tells us when introducing Marit's only pre-Gabriel lover, "Carrry their self-esteem like novice waiters learning to balance a full tray on one bent palm."
Her situations are wackily wicked. A school for blind youngsters borders Marit's property; in its bakery students turn out lopsided loaves of bread and lumpy, saucer-sized cookies.
But if all of this suggests that the book is a romp, be advised that it is much, much more than that. When the author mocks, it is to insure that sentiment is banished. Feeling, however, remains. Marit is the one character Arensberg doesn't sting; she is a female version of heathcliff, as excessive and as right. Maria's passion is pure and untamed and deadly, and there is nothing to be done in the face of it. Sure, we can wish to pat her, as Lola does, and offer plain good sense: "Love is an appetizer, honey, it's not supposed to be the whole meal. It's the zest to life, you catch? It's not life itself."
But in the end we can only watch Marit do what we have learned to call unspeakable. And shudder, knowing that she is not wrong. Like Heathcliff, Marit is an elemental force, and like Heathcliff, she leaves us helpless, wrung out and in awe.
This excellent novel is Ann Arensberg's first. If she didn't go up in a clap of thunder and twist of smoke when she laid the last word of "Sister Wolf" on the page -- which wouldn't surprise me in the least -- I'm burning to read whatever follows. And I'd love to hear what she answers when the inevitable, "It is autobiographical?" comes her way.