Review: The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

I admit it–I almost dismissed The Last Werewolf out of hand. While I’ve read my share of vampire fiction, werewolves were never my thing, and I’d never read a werewolf book that was any damned good. And yes, I’ll go ahead and blame Twilight while I’m at it, just because I can: Twilight tainted werewolves.

But hey, I was at Costco, where the pickings are slim. Cheapskates can’t be choosers. So I bought it anyway.

This should be said, right from the start: The Last Werewolf is not a horror novel. It is not fantasy. It is not a paranormal romance. Oh, sure, it’s fantastic, and horrific, and even romantic. But it’s not genre fiction by any means–which is why I loved it. (Readers expecting it to conform to genre norms might not, complaining that it’s “too literary.”)

So: Jacob (“Jake”) Marlowe is a 201-year-old English werewolf. As the novel opens, another full moon has just passed, and so has the only other remaining werewolf–a German named Wolfgang, beheaded by an international occult law enforcement agency. Wolfgang’s demise leaves Jake to be the last of his kind (or, as he puts it, he’s now All wolf and no gang). Jake himself is slated for extermination during the next full moon, courtesy of the same agency.

There’s no surprise in that; he knows he’s been saved for last because he ate the head werewolf hunter’s father 40 years earlier. But after 167 lonely, loveless years as a monster? He’s ready. Bring on the silver bullets, baby.

I could summarize the plot–which owes far more to Robert Ludlum than to Bram Stoker–but I won’t. I’m lazy like that, especially when other reviewers have already done it. Go to Amazon and browse other reviews if you’re interested in the details.

What I will say, however, is that Glen Duncan has achieved something remarkable here, especially in the character of Jake, who is utterly convincing. Jake is both man and monster, and this constant tension is integral to his personality and worldview. In his werewolf form, Jake retains full human cognition and memory while hunting, dismembering, and devouring his human prey (and he must feed on human flesh; animals are no substitute). He cannot hide from what he is behind a screen of simple-minded animal oblivion; he has no means of denying that he is a monster. Even while he’s in his human form, the beast’s hunger to fuck, to kill, to eat–to fuckkilleat–is never fully absent.

Since any humans he might love are not exempt from the dangers of fuckkilleat, Jake has spent the last 167 years of his werewolf life assiduously avoiding love altogether. His is an isolated existence, and (from his perspective, at least) a loveless one. To manage the insistent, unruly fuck part of fuckkilleat, he relies on prostitutes, frequenting those he dislikes in order to avoid emotional entanglements–though he’s still human enough for this to not be infallible. His current regular belle du jour is Madeleine, a vapid, babyish, self-absorbed blonde whose “telephone farewell is mmbahh. 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 are so many tensions in his personality, so many opposites in a constant push-pull–between were and wulf; rational man and ravenous monster; the sheer poetry of his language coupled with black humor and harsh profanity; preying on and eating people while setting up humanitarian foundations; viewing humans as essentially food, while at the same time possessing the accumulated understanding of human frailty that lets him see the confused child in Madeleine. Somehow, these traits coexist, banging against each other in rough, raucous, smutty, glorious, multi-layered fashion.

Adding to the wonder is that Jake is wholly believable as a 200-year-old being who has seen, done, and read just about everything–and that’s a rare thing in fiction. Glen Duncan has a powerful imagination, and in this particular detail he succeeds where so many authors writing about immortals have failed. Too often, immortal characters in fiction are hopelessly contemporary, with a few lines of verse, a favorite sonata, archaic manners, or a lot of historical name-dropping stitched on like badges to indicate their great age. Educated and fiercely erudite, Jake’s learning and experience are seamlessly woven into his personality.

Whether Jake is recalling lines from Tennyson during a kill (or hilariously invoking Jane Eyre: “Reader, I ate him.”), riffing on Nabokov, or comparing his furtive life to something out of a Graham Greene novel, there is nothing forced or contrived about it. His man-self devoured these things, digested them, and now carries them as permanent parts of his mental kit (just as he carries the spirit-echoes and memories of all the humans he’s devoured). His philosophical musings and constant, astute observations on life, love, death, and his own monstrous existence bubble forth from a deep well; this is a character who has obviously spent the last couple of centuries reading and thinking (as well as fuckkilleat-ing), and his thoughts flow out effortlessly.

I mention all this because it’s so goddamned rare. I get incredibly annoyed at authors who drop leaden literary and cultural references in an attempt at cleverness and sophistication, or who go on for pages with bloated philosophizing. I want convincing illusions in fiction–and that means I don’t want to see how much work it took to get it on the page. I don’t want to see how much effort it took to make a character sound like an intellectual, or to speak in a distinctive voice. I don’t want to be able to identify the exact books the author read and took notes from while doing research (and I do that a lot).

In math class, you’re supposed to show your work–but not when writing novels. I loved The Last Werewolf in large part because Glen Duncan doesn’t show his fucking work, and that’s exactly as it should be.

Oh, and there are vampires in this werewolf story. Some have even found a breakthrough that allows them to walk around in broad daylight. But however pretty they may be, these aren’t “vegetarian” Twilight sparklepires; they smell like decomposing meat and rotten pigshit. Duncan only briefly describes vampire society and politics in The Last Werewolf, but it was enough to convince me that if he writes a vampire novel, I’ll buy it.

If there’s anything I didn’t care for, it’s that the ending felt rather rough, and wasn’t quite as satisfying as I expected. There are a couple of plot points (such as an archaeologist’s missing notebook, containing the ancient, long-lost werewolf origin story) that never quite panned out, and those, combined with the ending, practically scream “SEQUEL COMING!” And sure, I’ll read one when it comes out, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary–The Last Werewolf tells the story it set out to tell, and can stand alone and complete in itself.

Next week’s review:

Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches (and this one I should be able to get posted on Saturday).