By David Nilsen
Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels is about werewolves. Except it isn’t. Not really. It’s about being poor, being outcast, being hungry, being scared, being desperate for identity, being broken, being part of a family of fuck-ups who love each other as fiercely as they fight each other, being aware of your own position as a freak on the edges of society, being somewhat proud of each of those things when given enough time to think about them. And it explores these themes through the eyes of a family of werewolves trying to survive in the American South.
Actually, that’s not exactly true either. It explores these themes through the eyes of the youngest member of the family, who hasn’t become a werewolf yet. Or rather, hasn’t had his first change into wolf form yet. He has the blood, but that doesn’t guarantee he can change, which usually happens for the first time during adolescence. It’s his aunt and uncle and grandpa who are definitely werewolves, and this boy is in their care, and desperately wants to be one of them, wants to change, wants all the legends to be true of him as they are of his elders.
The narrator is never named. The books starts when he’s eight years old and ends when he’s sixteen, though the narrative jumps around a lot in that time period. The narrator, his aunt Libby, and his uncle Darren spend the book on the run, because being on the run is a way of life for werewolves. It isn’t wise for them to stay in one place for long, and they can’t really hold down jobs for long enough to need to anyway. They scavenge and steal food when they can’t pay for it, they drive their beater cars into the ground, and they live in crappy trailers until its time to leave, which usually means burning that trailer to ashes to cover their trail. They get arrested, and generally break out. They kill when they have to, run instead when they can. There’s never enough money. They love big but never say it, their love defined by loyalty proven by risk.
Throughout the novel, Stephen Graham Jones weaves in werewolf lore and “facts,” mostly under the guise of the narrator’s aunt and uncle teaching him about how to live as a werewolf when he finally turns (there is little acknowledgement of “if” except in the boy’s own tormented mind). Some of this is part of popular werewolf mythology–silver is lethal to them–but much of it is invented for the purpose of the book, and all of it is interesting. I imagine Jones did a lot of research on werewolf legends to figure out what to use and what to discard (the moon is irrelevant in Mongrels), and the result is one of the most entertaining aspects of the novel.
Some of the action sequences of the story are difficult to follow, and I had trouble picking up on the significance of certain events Jones seemed to assume the reader would easily intuit. Some of this is because of the ragged, desperate tone employed in many of the scenes of action, which are true to the urgency of these moments but can make it tough to keep up. Sometimes it felt though like the author was so immersed in a scene in his own head that certain details that would have helped the reader were omitted. These are small complaints though, and don’t come up often.
Mongrels displays an intimate understanding of what it’s like to be broke and desperate. These characters are almost always hungry, never more than days away from losing jobs, and always wondering when the car will quit. This is just life for them, and they accept it, though it never really becomes easier. The only given is ferocious loyalty to each other that will commit any crime, fight any foe, break through any wall to protect their own. Sometimes it’s a loyalty the narrator wishes he could shed, especially since his own contributions to the family’s well-being are not equal to those of his aunt and uncle, but ultimately he is where he wants to be.
Mongrels is a novel that is keenly observant about family, identity, and growing up, while also being highly entertaining. It’s funny, exciting, even touching. It’s about werewolves. But then, it really isn’t.
Mongrels is available now at GPL.