Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Pack

by Jason Starr


Some books push all my buttons. The Pack is that kind of novel, and I think it's likely to get a strong reaction form most readers. Its principal character is Simon Burns, who gets fired from his job in advertising and has to learn how to be a stay-at-home dad in short order. Money is tight and he's having trouble with his marriage, so his confidence has taken a knock. So when he meets a group of other fathers at the playground he's instantly drawn in by their self-assurance and friendliness.

The men welcome Simon, but his initiation into their circle gets horribly out of hand. He doesn't remember exactly what happened on the night in question, but afterwards the police are keen to talk to him about his whereabouts. And afterwards he experiences significant physical changes that are both frightening and damning in their implications.

This story had me hooked from the start with its realistic depiction of a modern New York family which shades into the eerie world of the supernatural step by tiny step. Simon is a likeable guy, a touch complacent about office politics but nevertheless not a complete pushover. Some of his colleagues are swine and at points it seemed like he should have been more alert to their malice, but on the whole Simon's problems are easy to relate to. Tight pacing, believable dialogue and distinct characterisations give this novel a kind of compulsive page-turnability, and I should have been lapping it up. Instead it had me seething.

The first insult is suggested in Simon's reaction to becoming a full-time dad. He fails badly at first, but that's okay because everyone takes time to adjust to a new role. What I didn't find acceptable was the de-masculinisation that's implied by his and everyone else's reaction to what happens. When Simon loses his job his mojo goes with it: he slobs about the house like a bum, his sex life suffers, his self-respect plummets, and even his three-year-old son appears to be walking all over him.

Then Simon meets Michael, Charlie and Ramon, three guys who are caricatures of masculinity. They're confident enough to hug each other in public without feeling uncomfortable. Lusty, hungry, domineering, strong and sexy, they dine on red meat by the cowful and they don't let anyone else tell them what to do. They're in touch with their "animal" side, to the extent that they show their emotions openly and often suppress their faculties of reason in favour of acting on instinct. So Michael doesn't talk often, won't tell lies, and lords it over everyone else with his direct commands. Meanwhile Ramon is unrestrained in his pursuit of women. All of them eat, run and live like there's no tomorrow. In other words, Jason Starr's werewolves have pretty much no self-control. At the same time the author seems to be using the werewolf as a metaphor for real, uber-masculine men. It's as though he's saying men are okay to behave obnoxiously because their primal instincts are so much stronger than women's and the poor dears can't help themselves.

This really slaughtered my goat. However I couldn't help but wonder if I was reading it wrong. After all, the werewolves aren't necessarily the personification of an ideal, even though they seem to have an awful lot of fun being the way they are. Later in the book there's a female of the species, and in some ways that puts paid to the idea of werewolves simply standing for masculinity. Her hairiness and wild behaviour does seem pretty wrong and almost comical, though.

So The Pack isn't a straight story about freeing the inner male from the constraints of modern society, with all the reactionary anti-feminism that would imply. Nevertheless I wasn't exactly sure what it is getting at, and this left me feeling uncomfortable. The ending is quite inconclusive, and it peters out to lead into the next book rather than giving us something definite to agree or disagree with. There's no doubt in my mind that Jason Starr can write a compelling narrative, and this one had me riveted. It's just that I had so many doubts about what he's trying to say that as well as pushing all the right buttons this book also hits the one marked "eject".

24th April 2012

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books

    Male Protagonist  

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