Date read: 9.11.2021
Book from: Library
Bloody, meaty, funny, sly, dreamy, sad, longing, gonzo, dirtbaggy. What Kathryn Bigelow’s Western horror movie Near Dark did for vampires, Stephen Graham Jones’ novel Mongrels does for werewolves. (I was delighted and unsurprised to see Jones citing Near Dark as a foundational influence in the afterword.) I treasured reencountering that texture of gritty, snappish, road-tripping familial love. This novel also captures the anxious, dreamy awkwardness of alienated adolescence through a tone that’s very similar to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: both books have that curious way of looking at things so hard, with such a burning desire to understand, that the gaze splits or slides off to the side, becomes strange and oblique.
So many parts of this book are so nakedly about growing up poor and unwelcome and not-white in the American South that it tugs at your heart. At the same time, the werewolf mythos serves as a kind of appetizing cover story, an exciting distraction—just as it did for the teenaged Jones, who is Blackfeet. (Jones is calculatedly coy as to the werewolf family’s physical appearance, but there are a couple references to black hair, and an unpleasant high school classmate once asks the narrator if he’s “Mexican or something.”) It’s deeply touching to me to honor your sustaining childhood fantasy by turning it into a full novel, and a novel that’s vividly charged with its own darkly joyful mythos: Jones clearly revels in the frequently gory elaborations that he brings to werewolf biology and lifeways.
I couldn’t get enough of the episodic, almost diaristic storytelling, the plangent fragments of memory and the macabrely superheroic exploits. (The more outrageously superheroic bits are explained in a brief exchange of dialogue in the last chapter.) All of this is run through with the anxiety and dread that shape the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable.
In short: consumed with fascination and dread, I read this book way too fast. Sadly, this may have resulted in my breaking its spell more abruptly than would have been ideal. After I finished, the content and style dissociated in my head, and it became too easy to remember the book’s more absurd, cartoonish bits, and less so its quietly fierce, tender tone or earthy, sweaty textures.
In the long run, though, what will stick with me is the way that Jones turned a fantasy into a novel in a way that inevitably points back at the real life that gave birth to the fantasy—and in a way that cries out for readers to recognize and value the loving, chaotic lives of the poor and dispossessed.
Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)