THE WOLF GIFT
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 404 pp. $25.95
Vampires, witches, demons, angels, Jesus and dybbuks — with “The Wolf Gift,” Anne Rice adds lycanthropes to her bucket list of characters. Rice has never shied away from tackling Big Issues: After two books of a projected trilogy on “Christ the Lord,” her last two novels featured an assassin grappling with redemption. “The Wolf Gift” marks a return to form while still giving a nod to spiritual matters. This is a werewolf novel where the visionary Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin is evoked so often that he nearly becomes a secondary character.
San Francisco journalist Reuben Golding could use some bite when he first visits the magnificent cliff-top Nideck estate, nestled in a redwood forest four hours north of the Bay Area. At 23, sweet-natured Reuben is still called “Sunshine Boy,” “Baby Boy” and “Little Boy” by his family and girlfriend. He’s agreed to do a puff piece on the mansion, put up for sale by Marchent Nideck, who inherited the compound from her Uncle Felix, an adventurer whose will has only recently been opened after his mysterious disappearance two decades earlier.
It doesn’t take more than a few pages for Reuben to fall for both Marchent and the Nideck estate. Rice’s descriptions of the mansion are so lush that readers might do the same — to cop a line from musical theater, this is a book that will leave readers humming the architecture.
And because Marchent is one of those gorgeous, mysterious women usually portrayed on film by Charlotte Rampling, it will come as no shock to learn that, after a house tour that includes a magnificent library heavy on antiquarian ghost stories and esoterica (“Ancient manuscripts? Here? They could be priceless.”), she takes Reuben to her Elizabethan bed.
Post-tryst, Reuben drifts off to sleep, only to be awakened by Marchent’s screams. Rushing downstairs, he finds Marchent dead and himself under attack by two assailants who are abruptly dispatched by a ferocious dog that appears out of nowhere, sinks its fangs into Reuben’s face and disappears. When Reuben comes around in the emergency room, it’s to hear the attending physician — in one of the novel’s many contrivances, she’s his mother — expressing consternation over the investigator’s DNA analysis: “One minute it’s the saliva of a dog, the next it’s the saliva of a wolf, and now they’re telling me maybe the bites were made by a human. . . . Now it was no human being that made these bites on Reuben’s head and neck. And it was no mountain lion, either. The idea is patently absurd!”
Uh-oh. Anyone see what happened to those ancient manuscripts?
Reuben rebounds miraculously, aided by the news that Marchent made a last-minute change to her will and left the estate to him. There are some peculiar side effects to his recovery, though, such as acutely enhanced senses of hearing and smell: “It was as if each fragrance had a personality, a distinct color in his mind. He felt like he was reading a code.” Blood tests indicate a rapid surge of growth hormone. And his hair — let’s just say Fabio should watch his back.
Are you sure you don’t know what happened to those manuscripts? What about the ancient clay tablets?
All of this starts out as good, pulpy fun, with Rice’s violet-tinged prose making for a delectable cocktail of old-fashioned lost-race adventure, shape-shifting and suspense, brightened by enticing hints of a secret history dating back to ancient Sumeria. Unfortunately, Rice dilutes the mix by introducing an insipid romantic interest for Reuben, who’s really a noble collie beneath all that lupine hair. He uses his newfound powers only for good, saving innocents in peril and slaying evildoers, thereby making the front page of tabloids everywhere as the mysterious Man Wolf — a story that Reuben covers by day, naturally, in his journalist guise.
Things pick up when one character suddenly reappears, along with the hirsute cronies Margon and Thibault. There is much talk of something called the Chrism, and a race known as the Morphenkinder, and a city older than Uruk, and —
Look, are you absolutely certain those cuneiform shards aren’t around here somewhere?
Rice obviously loves her lupine creations. There are lovely wilderness passages and a few good throat-crunching scenes when Reuben gets to howl. But these are offset by the fact that every character in this novel, save the villains, is physically beautiful, morally upright, carefully tailored and overly fond of discussing Catholic theology and the works of Erik Satie. There is no true antagonist, no moody Lucifer or conflicted Lestat; only an array of one-dimensional baddies who are no match for a Man Wolf whose wounds magically heal themselves overnight. Rice seems to have forgotten that readers don’t want werewolves with good taste; they want werewolves who think humans taste good.
Still, it’s good to see her back with a character who isn’t from the New Testament. One closes “The Wolf Gift” with a strong sense that another multi-volume saga is in the offing. Now, if we can only find those incunabula. . . .
Hand’s latest thriller, “Available Dark,” has just been published.
the wolf gift
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 404 pp. $25.95