A naked man is found dead in the woods of northern Alberta. He turns out to be Ben Wylie, the eighth-richest man in the world, but the police are not interested in investigating further, preferring to attribute his death to hypothermia or natural causes.
After this opening, Stephen Marche’s new novel, The Hunger of the Wolf, goes back in time and switches location to New York City, where Albertan Jamie Cabot has just separated from his wife and lost his job. He is now close to being one of those drifters who stay in New York simply because they have nothing left and nowhere else to go.
Jamie’s perilous yet familiar situation allows Marche to let loose several magnificent disquisitions on the scrabble and scratch of freelance life in the big city, “fighting with all the fury my body and soul could muster to belong to cliques I despised.” As his life falls apart, Jamie begins to understand his “predicament clearly for the first time. New York was filling up with overeducated drifters and overweight homeless, and all my efforts would have to go to staying the former, not the latter.”
In this sorry state of mind, Jamie goes to the lavish fourth birthday party of Sigma, the daughter of his old friend Leo (Leo’s wife Kate has an astronomical amount of inherited wealth, and they have spent $10,000 on the birthday party alone). Also attending the party is Ben Wylie, heir of the famous but media-shy Wylie family, with whom our narrator converses briefly while gazing at a Klee painting (not a print) entitled The Wolf.
Shortly afterwards, Jamie is called home with the news of his father’s sudden death. Home is North Lake, the small town where the Wylies also own a cottage that Jamie’s family was paid well to look after in the off-season. After the funeral, he finds himself mowing the Wylies’ lawn. Sneaking inside, he discovers the Klee, which Ben must have bought from Kate, along with some secret letters, personal papers, and a basement that has “dirt floors scarred with claws and a large cage fitted with chain leashes.” Back in New York, he writes that the Wylie family has always been his “unspoken fascination”; now he hopes to monetize the connection, or at the very least to turn it into a big story to hook his editor.
From this point on, the novel alternates between Jamie’s first-person narrative and a history of the WylieCorp dynasty. Ben’s grandfather Dale grows up in a Pennsylvania steel town where money is tight: the family is always hungry, and all anyone ever thinks about is how to keep up with the mortgage. One night, excited and overwrought after a city-wide fire, Dale and his brother Max go to bed as normal, only to wake in terror: “Max had bristles prodding through his skin and new teeth slithering their way through his gums.” Even more unexpected than this transformation is the way in which his parents calmly take charge of the situation, leading the brothers down to the basement, where cages and leashes await.
After the transformation, everything is different, and nothing has changed. Max and Dale leave school together and go to work. The jobs they find and the trajectories their lives follow indicate the ways in which both boys rebel against the penny-pinching misery and hunger of their childhood. Max wants nothing to do with responsibility, and gambles his money away as fast as he earns it. Meanwhile, after years of putting in the hours and never getting ahead, Dale suddenly works out how to get rich.
Dale and his family are soon living in luxury, and when George turns thirteen Dale duly initiates him into the secret, monstrous life of the Wylie family. But once the family is financially secure, the narrative tension falls away somewhat. There’s a rather unsuccessful part of the novel where Dale – now wondering what the point of having all that money is – moves to the UK and starts buying up newspapers. Part of the problem here is that the novel begins to sprawl and the humour relies too much on stereotypes. The contemporary sections also use stock characters, but they’re so exuberantly larger than life, and given such a painfully accurate Portlandia-meets-big-money treatment, that they still work.
As the chronicle continues, George’s father dies when his son Ben is just a baby. On Ben’s thirteenth birthday, George writes him a letter. No longer are the Wylie boys initiated into lycanthropy with a mixture of silence, ignorance and bewilderment. George’s letter distils his extensive research on the subject, letting Ben know that there is nothing to fear as long as he can find a woman who understands. At this point the novel wilts a little, as if worn out from burning all that energy, and Ben’s history is lacklustre in comparison with the earlier writing. Marche captures characters and settings only after a brief exhilarating struggle, pinning them to the ground to sketch at his leisure. But their ongoing development is less sure-footed and compelling.
Ben’s death, whose mystery seemed for a long time like the puzzle to which the novel was a solution, turns out to have been important only as a clue to the Wylies’ secret existence. But Jamie’s desire to chronicle the family dissipates when he unexpectedly becomes a part of their world of great wealth.
Known already for his genre-busting fiction, it seems as though Marche has added werewolves into this tale as a challenge to the reader: “Why shouldn’t there be a werewolf subplot mashed into the middle of this trenchantly realist, state-of-the-nation novel?” But while sometimes literary mash-ups can be exhilarating, here I wanted to discount the werewolf sections, to wish them away so I could get on with the rest of it. Was this a personal prejudice, or did it have something to do with the construction of the novel? Or was it because the werewolf sections were too sparse, the solution to their mystery needing more exposition, not less?
Wolves are a little heavy-handed as a symbol for rapacious capitalism, but Marche may have intended another interpretation. The fact that the Wylies enjoy being wolves is telling: when not in human form, it’s acceptable to let their enormous appetites rule. But the apparent dichotomy between old-style capitalism – diligent, respectable and quiet – and the aimless, vapid contemporary lifestyles of the super-rich, who appear to be the true target of Marche’s bitter ire, is too simplistic. In the end there is no difference: money is simply money (Dale would disagree), and too much of it does nobody any good.
The energy – you might even call it aggression – of Marche’s writing is what pulls the realist and supernatural elements together, but there’s an occasional problem with overwriting as well – with so much in the way of ambitious fireworks a few damp squibs are inevitable. Nevertheless, Marche’s pen is hungry and sharp, and this novel of how we live now both disturbs and satisfies. Marche has a deep and precise understanding of contemporary culture, but he also has the rarer talent of knowing how the world works, all of which makes his book both rich and convincing, and perhaps the breakout we’ve been waiting for.
From CNQ 93 (Summer 2015)