Book Review: Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones (2016)

May 11th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

This book gave me a serious case of Sad Eyes.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including animal abuse.)

This is how it is with werewolves. Even when they lie, it’s the truth. And now I knew the truth about myself. I was a murder weapon. I was revenge. I was a burden my aunt and uncle had been carrying around for ten years already, out of obligation to my mom. I was maybe a wolf, maybe not.

“Being a werewolf isn’t just teeth and claws,” she said, her lips brushing my ear she was so close, so quiet, “it’s inside. It’s how you look at the world. It’s how the world looks back at you.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” the villager’s uncle says back to the villager’s aunt, his smile as wide as the villager’s ever seen. “One of them’s got a pitchfork.”

Arkansas. Texas. Florida. New Mexico. Georgia. Alabama. Mississippi. South Carolina.: “Riding the yo-yo,” Darren called it. The unnamed narrator of Mongrels has spent much of his young life traversing the southern U.S., hopping from state to state, running as far as the family’s current junker would take them. Trying to stay ahead of the snow – and the law. Living on the outskirts of town, in rundown rentals and dilapidated trailers, taking low-wage (yet honest) work where they could find it, but always falling back on theft to round out their diets. Strawberry wine coolers. Cases of steak. Wild deers and the occasional calf.

The boy – sometimes a villager, other times a reporter, always a wolf-in-waiting – never knew his parents. As a topic of conversation, dad is off-limits; and his mother, Jessica, died in childbirth. Just like her mother before her. It’s more than a family curse: it’s a species curse. Human women cannot safely give birth to werewolves. Unlike her littermates, Libby and Darren, Jessica didn’t inherit her father’s wolf blood.

In the wake of his mother’s death, the boy was raised by wolves – Grandpa, Aunt Libby, Uncle Darren – but still isn’t sure whether he is one. Werewolves don’t turn until adolescence, you see.

We first meet the narrator at age seven, as his grandfather regales him with impossible stories of impossible creatures. Stories that are truer than the narrator realizes; stories that are really admissions and apologies in disguise. After the grandfather’s early death (werewolves age like dogs, you know), the trio beats a hasty retreat from Arkansas. There was a fire, you see. The first of many.

From there, we meet Darren’s secret admirer, a wildlife biologist with a penchant for scat; we learn of Grandfather’s role in defeating the Nazis (“the Amazing Adventures of the Black Wolf, Secret Weapon of World War II”); we witness the narrator’s first (star-crossed) romance, with a girl who wants to be a werewolf; and we watch as Darren lands in jail for grave robbing (“It was one crime we’d never committed, not in all the years since Arkansas.”) and is shanghaied by a greedy exterminator in Florida. Oh, and there is werewolf lore up the wazoo.

Mongrels doesn’t follow a linear structure, but rather jumps back and forth in time and perspective. Consequently, the book often feels like a collection of short stories – each eminently enjoyable on its own, but all the more stunning when considered alongside the others. This approach does engender a feeling of confusion and chaos, but in the best way possible; in a way that seems to mirror the narrator’s own state of mind, as he learns more and more about his heritage and family history.

This is a book that’s full of heart. And also blood and guts and assorted viscera. It’s brutal and gory and terribly, achingly beautiful. Whether it’s thinking of the sorry excuse for a funeral afforded the world’s oldest werewolf – he who saved his brethren by hand-pressing counterfeit silver bullets – or reflecting on the narrator’s own tragic origin story, Mongrels is like a knife to the heart (silver, natch). Or a dew claw to the birth canal, if you’d rather.

One thing I love/hate about the Kindle is how easy the technology makes it to take notes. So I end up highlighting a ridiculous amount. And I think I broke a record here, despite my attempts to be judicious. Jones’s writing is just so lovely and heart-rending!

Lest it be all doom and gloom and buckets full of tears, Mongrels also has an unexpected, darkly funny and twisted sense of humor. Often from man-child Darren (my favorite is when he goes Bigfoot hunting with a group of pitchfork-wielding villagers; the unicorn poop is a close second), but not exclusively.

This is a story about growing up, yes; but it’s bigger than the narrator, even. I found many of the characters interesting, but Libby especially held my attention. Whereas Darren loves being a werewolf – and, seeing his enthusiasm, the narrator is pretty gun-ho about it too – Libby’s feelings are more ambivalent. She wants her nephew to have a normal life: the “town” life that eluded her dead sister. She wants to protect him, the way she couldn’t do for Jess.

Yet she’s had to bury her own wants and desires, perhaps her very self, to do it. Remember, Jess died when she was just fourteen. When they were all just fourteen. With Jess’s demise, Libby became both a teen mom – and a young girl mourning her identical triplet. It makes you wonder how Libby feels about her cross-species status, especially in light of the ending. She’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in slab of raw steak. (Never frozen, because what if you get the midnight munchies?)

Honestly, I just cannot say enough good things about this book – so, in the interest of spoilers, I’ll stop trying.

Mongrels isn’t for the faint of heart or stomach; in addition to rabbits, birds, calves, deers, and dogs killed and torn apart for sustenance, there’s also a neighborhood full of dogs kidnapped and slain for the healing properties of their blood, and a captive bear made rabid and framed for the crimes of grave-robbing werewolves. Yet if you can power through the carnage, it’s the sort of story – or stories, plural – that will tear your soul apart and then stitch it back together again. Unique and bewitching and unlike any other werewolf story I’ve read – both in terms of lore and sheer depth of emotion.

Read it for the monsters, or for the teenage angst. It’s all the same bag of bones.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The narrator’s grandmother, Jessica, died in childbirth. Fourteen years later, his mother Jessica would die while giving birth to him. The narrator is raised by his grandfather and his Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren – his mom’s “littermates” (they were triplets). Jessica became pregnant and died at just fourteen, which is one of many things that make the narrator’s bio dad “off-limits.”

Libby, Darren, and their nephew – the unnamed narrator – have dark hair, as do most werewolves: blond wolves are likely to be spotted skulking around at night. Their ethnicity is hinted at just once, when the narrator is bullied by three classmates outside a convenience store:

“He Mexican?” the third of them said, a boy with yellow hair. If I stood, we’d have been the exact same height. “Still wet,” John Deere Hat said—“piso mojado, right?”—then pulled the girl along with him, heading into the gas station.

In this way, the titular “mongrels” could be analogy for their ethnic heritage, particularly if they’re Latino on just one side (their grandfather’s?). As werewolves who have to stay a step ahead of the law, the trio has to contend with prejudice that could just as easily be ascribed to their non-white status. (For example, the narrator talks about being closely watched while shopping. Granted, he is a habitual shoplifter, but still.)

Libby’s “true love ex-husband,” Red, is physically abusive, as is another ex, Morris Wexler. Libby killed Morris, but a paramedic managed to revive him – leaving him in a coma. Libby brings the werewolf a rabbit every now and again.

Grace-Ellen lost her husband Trigo several years ago.

Animal-friendly elements: Nooooo! The werewolves in Mongrels are real, and they dine on all manner of animals – mostly of the nonhuman variety: cows, deers, birds, rabbits, dogs, cats. Some werewolves resort to grave robbing, though modern funerary practices have made this difficult (unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a Jewish graveyard, that is). But nonhuman animals aren’t just meals: after Grace-Ellen cuts the narrator across the chest with a silver weapon, she heals him with a beef broth/dog blood solution. Libby kidnaps and kills every dog in the neighborhood to save her nephew. And when Darren finds himself in jail for grave robbing, Libby steals a bear from a local tourist trap (wrestle a bear, win $300) in order to frame him for the crime and free her brother. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Libby and Darren leave a trail of dead animals in their wake.

 

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One Response to “Book Review: Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones (2016)”

  1. Mongrels | Stephen Graham Jones Says:

    […] reviews : LA Times  |  Tor.com  |  LitReactor  |  DreadCentral  |  BookRiot (@2:55)  |  B&N Science Fiction and Fantasy  |  Shelf Stalker  |  Kirkus  |  Publishers Weekly  |  Examiner  |  Witchsong  |  Booksellers Wrap-up  |  This is Horror  |  Dead End Follies  |  New York Journal of Books  |  Shock Totem  |    |  Easy Vegan […]

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