To say a novel is one of the best in its genre and the absolute best in its subgenre is high praise. However, to say that a novel adds so much to the canon of its genre and subgenre that it becomes that statistical impossibility known as an instant classic is something a reviewer, at least an honest, lucky one, probably gets to write only a handful of times in his or her career. In the case of Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels, the werewolf novel gets a treatment so fresh and unique that it emerges, much like its characters, morphed into an entirely different thing.
Mongrels follows an unnamed narrator as he’s forced to crisscross the American South with his aunt, Libby, and uncle, Darren, both werewolves. The trio go from town to town, working an endless list of low-wage jobs and getting in a plethora of inconvenient situations before moving on, propelled by the knowledge that staying in one place for too long can spell disaster for those of their kind. Along the way they come across other werewolves and the narrator learns about his family while falling in love for the first time and learning to differentiate between family lore and facts. From school to home and from werewolf secrets to the mystery of the narrator’s dominant genes, the narrative offers a very different, heartfelt, and wonderfully immersive look at lycanthropes that treats their beastly side with as much respect and attention as it does their human side. The result is a hybrid monster of a novel that has the canine teeth of a crime thriller and the heart of a coming-of-age tale.
Mongrels anchors itself on variety and constant shifts instead of doing so on the horror tropes readers have learned to expect from werewolf narratives. Sure, this is a horror novel, but it’s a horror novel with writing that dips into literary fiction, passages and scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a country noir, and enough high-speed escapes, jailbreaks, gory fights, and adventure to help it obliterate genre boundaries. Jones is a masterful storyteller with a knack for beautiful, honest voices, and this unnamed narrator is at the top of his oeuvre in terms of gritty emotional honesty and approachability. What he doesn’t know, the reader doesn’t know. When he is sad or worried, the reader is sad and worried. What the narrator thinks, feels, experiences, and learns adds up to one astoundingly mesmeric reading experience that, even at 320 pages, is over all too soon.
While there is plenty of action going on in Mongrels, a lot of moving and attacking and escaping, the heart of the narrative contains a mystery: will the narrator’s werewolf genes allow him to join the clan? He has heard the stories and knows his mother never transformed, so despite the dewclaws that indicate his werewolf nature, there is a chance that the lycanthrope genes will never manifest. This would result in a “normal” life, whish is what his aunt hopes for, but the narrator longs to be part of the clan he was raised in, he wants to run at night the way his uncle does, and Darren fuels his desire: “If you’re not a beautiful monster, then you’re a villager.” Whether the youngster will change or not is something that pulls the narrative together, the cohesive element that helps heartbreak, danger, history, and violence to coalesce into a complete, satisfying novel that contributes immensely to the werewolf novel DNA and that joins the group of novels that have made Jones one of the most important voices in fiction.
Perhaps the most important thing Mongrels accomplishes is having a set of characters that are far from perfect but that nonetheless manage to earn the heart of readers. Not caring for them is almost impossible because the world/family/situations that Jones constructs easily pull the reader in. Ultimately, besides the superb storytelling and additions to the lycanthrope genre, Mongrels succeeds because it doesn’t focus on showing us how weird, dangerous, and different these monsters are. Instead, what Jones does is bring them closer to us and make us care: “People say werewolves are animals, but they’re wrong. We’re so much worse. We’re people, but with claws, with teeth, with lungs that can go for two days, legs that can eat up counties.” This different approach makes a great novel and absolute must-read and one of Jones’ richest offerings yet, and that is the highest praise anyone can bestow on this book.
by Stephen Graham Jones
320 p.; William Morrow