Review: Stephen Marche’s ‘The Hunger of the Wolf’

The Hunger of the Wolf. Stephen Marche. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $25.
The Hunger of the Wolf. Stephen Marche. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $25.

The third novel from Esquire writer Stephen Marche begins with a tried-and-true dead body, found naked and frozen in the snows of northern Canada. Only this is no John Doe. The body belongs to Ben Wylie, helmsman of the multinational Wylie family of companies and scion of the family fortune, a young man worth $27 billion. The reverberations of the death are felt hundreds of miles away in New York City, where Jamie Cabot, a paid-by-the-word writer/journalist, has seen his stream of income, which never threatened to spill the banks, slow to a trickle.

With Ben’s death, though, the scent of money has hit the air, and Jamie, whose family lived in a smaller house adjacent to the Wylies and served as caretakers to their fabulously, farcically rich neighbors, thinks that he can leverage his connection into a well-paying profile for one of the glossy magazines that still has a budget to pay its writers, despite the recession that has all of the city’s elite clutching at their pearls. As he scores an interview that could lead him closer to the dark heart of the Wylie story, he is drawn deeper into the generation-spanning mystery of the family and must come face to face with their terrible secret.

No, but, really: the Wylie men are werewolves. For the last hundred years, they have spent three days a month around the full moon as bloodthirsty wolves, an inconvenience that they’ve handled by retreating to various cages in the basements of their various houses. This revelation comes as quite a surprise to the reader — Marche does such a good job of evoking the cultivated anxieties of east-coast privilege that one assumes that the most terrifying monster to be encountered here will be an over-educated, coke-addled, trust-fund sociopath (and there are plenty of those).

Even once the wolves appear, though, money is still the real terror. Just as the Wylies are cursed by it, Jamie chases its glamor into a love quadrangle: “Every story is a little miracle,” he says. “You make it out of nothing and you sell it for money.”

There is a conversation that could be had — although at this point it would be boring — about the tension between “genre” and “literary” writing, and the difficulties of blending the two, but The Hunger of the Wolf is simply one of the most observant and entertaining examinations of modern will-to-wealth that fiction has produced in recent years. It just also happens to also occasionally feature man transforming into wolf. But there is no rending of clothes, decidedly rare instances of baring fangs, not much in the way of the terrorizing of villagers and perhaps a slightly disappointing lack of throats being ripped out. Consider Citizen Kane if Orson Wells had to duck away every few scenes and chain himself to the wall.

Not to be obtuse — the lycanthropy is not merely tacked on. It is — as it is in all good monster stories — a metaphor. In this case, the wolf is the “wolf at the door,” that lupine menace we keep hearing will come for us if we fail to make enough money to keep him at bay. Many of Marche’s sentences are a delight, but he is at his best when discussing wealth, who has it, who wants it and why. Here is Jamie describing one of the many high-society parties he is forced to endure: “The party we were at was rich people waiting around for famous people. To me, the conversations of the peripatetic rich always have an unreal flavor, like the taste of paper clips.”

And on the nature of capitalism: “Every business is a tragedy, every last one. It either eventually dies or becomes so big that it belongs, truly, to nobody. Business maintains its furious optimism to mask this terminal condition. … Business is a way for men to give themselves fathers and sons, fathers who grow cold and die, sons who run away, and money to bind them together, money to tear them apart.”

Or perhaps the wolf is a metaphor for our desire to reject all this, to quit our jobs staring at illuminated screens and run into the woods to feast on the still-beating heart of something we had to chase? One thing is clear: Whether you decided to run toward money or away from it, you’re going to have to run.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.