Werewolves on Wheels

It’s Halloween Week! It’s been a super-weird and largely awful year, but we get this whole week for celebrating the best holiday of the year — culminating in Halloween itself, on a Saturday, with a full moon! And speaking of full moons, let’s review Mongrels, a novel written by Stephen Graham Jones.

So kids, what do we know about lycanthropy? Well, it’s the power to shift your form, right? The power to become a powerful, unstoppable werewolf, master of the night, destroyer of man and animal alike, savage scourge of the forest, a beast unlike all other beasts!

Actually, according to this book, it kinda sucks. There’s so much stuff that can kill you. You can’t wear tights or panty hose, ’cause if you wolf out while wearing them, they’re sheer enough that they change with you, and when you return to human form, every hair pulled back into your skin drags artificial fibers into your body, into your bloodstream, and you spend all day dying.

You have to be careful driving, ’cause if you wolf out in the car, you can’t drive anymore, and you’re gonna die. You sure can’t go on a boat. You wolf out in the middle of the ocean, you’re gonna go overboard and drown. You can’t even eat delicious trash out of the dumpster, ’cause if the wolf eats a tin can, the human’s gonna suffer for it. And you’re not going to live very long, even if you survive all the hazards. Being a werewolf takes a toll on your body. But no matter how long you live, it’s mostly going to suck.

“Mongrels” follows a kid, an unnamed narrator, as he travels across the South with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby. They’re all werewolves, but the kid hasn’t had his first change yet. Sometimes he wants it desperately, sometimes he’s not so sure. A lot of the time, he’s not sure that time will ever come at all. Darren is a laughing good-old-boy daredevil, and Libby is more careful, but often more savage.

They’re generally flat-broke and on the run from someone — usually because Darren or Libby turned into a monster and ate someone they shouldn’t have, usually a cop. It’s not an easy life, living out of junked-out trailers, traveling in cars that don’t run well, struggling to earn enough money to buy decent food. The kid never finishes out a whole year of school, generally only a few months at a time.

The whole family is fairly invisible, working bad jobs, burning trash out back of the trailer, buying food and wine coolers at convenience stores and truck stops. (I have a weakness for this book because the family spends time in two different towns I’ve lived in, and it’s nice to imagine you could’ve been that close to werewolves while you were buying corn dogs and chimichangas at Allsup’s in college.)

So the kid learns why you don’t go trying to turn normal humans into werewolves, he follows his uncle and his aunt on bloody sprees all over the countryside, he meets other werewolves — very rarely friendly — and once in a while, he gets to make a friend. The whole family goes through uncomfortable scrapes with the law, with angry rednecks, with kidnappers who want werewolves for their pee, with an out-of-control bear. But of all the things that can destroy a werewolf pack, the biggest threat is time. Time moves on, and people, even werewolves, change.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a real hair-raiser of a novel. Sometimes, it’s intensely scary, action-soaked, and bloody. Sometimes, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. And a lot of the time, it’s really sad. Because the life of a werewolf is hard and painful and lonely. You don’t get money, you don’t get possessions, you don’t get friends, you don’t get to settle down, and the future is always a question mark.

Characterization is a real high point for this book. You get to know every nook and cranny of these people’s heads — Libby’s stubborn nature, and her barely secret desire to go back to her lowdown scumbag mate Red; Darren’s good nature and quick wits, so often disarmed by the beast within; the kid’s questioning mind, his yearning to belong, his boundless love and trust in his aunt and uncle, his hopes and fears for his future.

We get few physical descriptions of the trio — Jones says he always considered them, like him, Native American. But we know what they look like where it counts. They look like humans. And they look like wolves.

If you love werewolves, if you love coming-of-age stories, if you ever lived the low-luck, low-rent, poor trash lifestyle, this book has something to say to you.

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