The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan; Knopf, 2011
Jake Marlowe is a monster. One night a month he turns into something lupine, a creature with the strength and senses of a wolf but the intelligence of an educated man. The monster is only satisfied by human flesh. The transformation lasts while the full moon is in the sky.
The horror, or beauty, of Glen Duncan’s wulf is that the Hunger that drives it cannot be satisfied by the flesh of other animals. The werewolf devours human flesh and consumes with it the memories, the essence of that person. There is no easy way out of this curse; no making due with rabbits or rats, no dreamy scenes of Jack Nicholson chasing down a stag in a manicured Connecticut forest. You can lock yourself away during the full moon, but sooner or later the Hunger will overcome you, and you will not want to lock yourself away. You will choose to kill. That is the monstrosity. Jake should know. He’s been a werewolf for over two hundred years, and now he’s the last.
Marlowe has been hunted over the decades by WOCOP, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomenon, which is mostly an elaborate hunt club for werewolves. In this world, there are vampires too, but vampires are less bestial, and so WOCOP (funded originally, we are told, by the Vatican) came to an arrangement with them, and the vampire Fifty Families are allowed to have one hundred vampires each. The head of the werewolf division of WOCOP, Grainer, has been gunning for Marlowe for years, because Marlowe ate his father.
It’s the voice of this novel, the self-assuredness of the prose, that held my interest in the opening pages. Jake is matter of fact about his condition. He does not make excuses for the people he’s killed. The wolf does not really allow excuses; at the point you’ve been infected (bitten or scratched by a werewolf) the only choice you have, if you are not going to kill, is to kill yourself. Jake did not do that. Neither did the others. Humans are selfish, and the drive to live is strong. How about only killing bad people, then? Sure, Jake says, try that. It’s fine until the novelty wears off.
Jake is intelligent, educated as someone with two hundred years of leisure time can be, and sardonic. Here, he describes Madeline, his latest call girl, because Jake will never have sex with a woman he likes:
“Madeline. . . brimming with tabloid axioms and fluent in cliché. She been there done that, bought the T-shirt. She goes ballistic. She gets paralytic. She wants the organ-grinder not his monkey. She wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire. . .her telephone farewell is mmbaah. This, more than her spiritual deficits has kept my dislike going, but it can’t last forever. A month in I can see the confused child in there, the gaping holes and wrong bulges in the long-ago fabric of love. There was a Doting and borderline Dodgy Dad, a fading and viciously Jealous Mum. This is the drag of having lived so long and seen so many: Biography shows through, all the mitigating antecedents. People teem with their own information and I start to get the headache of interest in them. Which is pointless, since when you get right down to it they’re first and foremost food.”
You don’t get the full beauty of the rhythm of that paragraph because I snipped some of it, but Duncan piles up the words, starting simply and layering the images and the observations. Often it starts with a physical description and then goes deep into Jake’s history, or into his head.
For a book with such a powerful viewpoint character, others in this book border on cliché. Harley, Marlow’s human assistant, is the stereotypical Old British Queen character. Ellis, Grainer’s second-in-command, is a Grotesque, although a good one. What we know of Grainer we hear from Jake, or mostly from Ellis. I think Grainer speaks perhaps three lines of dialogue in the whole book. Jake, however, is so powerful, and the book so compelling when we are in his memories, that he balances out these problems.
Jake insists that he is not a good man, that he has given himself to the monster, and that the countless good works and brave works of his life—fighting Nazis, dictators and drug cartels, funding children’s hospitals and foundations, is not attempting to make up for the destruction his wulf has caused, but mere social book-keeping. It’s a flimsy argument. The juxtaposition of the man Jake was supposed to be—a good one, a happy one—and the monster he is kept me reading even when I was disapproving, sad or horrified. I was often horrified, at what Jake did, and what was done to him.
The plot has some problems, or at least, loose ends. Some reviewers have said that there should be a sequel. I hope there isn’t because the book has a certain purity by itself, even if it is flawed; but a sequel would explain some of the things that just drop through the cracks, like the mysterious journal that explains the origin of werewolves. Jake, on the run for his life, simply has to have it, then stops looking. Just like that. I mean, he’s busy dodging vampires and silver bullets and all, but still. There is a long explanation about why there aren’t any more werewolves; people stopped transforming and started dying. This is all set-up for an elaborate vampire plot. The vampires want Jake alive, WOCOP wants him dead—or at least Grainer does. Some things were a bit too coincidental. A point of view shift away from first person near the end telegraphs things a bit too clearly.
And yet. . . the voice, the life of Jake Marlowe is powerful. There is a section where the reader follows him, in werewolf form, as he attacks and kills a human. We see him immediately before and immediately after a kill, and Duncan communicates the cruel, alien, yet so understandable joy of this sheer power.
And, you get observations like this, “You forgot sex could do this, cast the divine fragment back into the divine whole for a moment, then reel it out again, razed, beatified.”
And this, “I’m sorry Harls, for the mess I made of your life. For costing you your life. Vengeance, now, late, shamefully overdue, but vengeance nonetheless. Grainer. Ellis, too, eventually. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. I’m sorry the bare fact of you living wasn’t enough. I’m sorry it took loving someone. Someone else.”
It may just be the long cross-continental American trip in the middle of the book, but for some reason Jake Marlowe reminded me of Humbert Humbert. It’s strange, I know, but there is some click, some connection, with the theme of a man who does despicable things (Jake’s are worse than despicable) but is somehow engaging, human. Duncan shares Nabakov’s sense of farce, too. I can’t tell if this was Duncan’s intention (the name conjures Jacob Marley and Christopher Marlowe, not Nabakov,) but I can’t shake the resonance. It’s still humming around me.
It’s difficult to write much more about this book without spoilers. I will say that there is a telephone conversation in an airport that is breath-taking in its immediacy. Plotwise, there is a surprise discovery that isn’t terribly surprising. It makes the ending of the book unavoidable and the reader will see it coming, but you’ll want to stay with it, just for the power of Duncan’s words.