Book Review: 'Red Moon' By Benjamin PercyBenjamin Percy's new literary werewolf novel, Red Moon, is packed with vivid, gory-lush description and heavy allegory about a world where "lycans" are a persecuted minority. But reviewer Nick Mancusi says the book gives short shrift to character development.
One need pick up on only a hint of the zeitgeist to know that monsters that once worried their careers had peaked in B-movies of the '50s are now enjoying a sustained resurgence. On screens and in the "Teen Paranormal Romance" section of Barnes and Noble, supernatural creatures of all stripes battle for the hearts (or throats) of our homecoming queens. Surely the public's current appetite for these blood-lusty metaphors helped contribute to the sale, before the manuscript was even complete, of both the publishing and film rights to Benjamin Percy's Red Moon, and has fueled the buzz surrounding it for months.
Percy's first novel, The Wilding, was a thoroughly masculine tale about three generations of men contending with the elements on one last camping trip, and Red Moon, his second, maintains the same dog-eat-dog worldview while adding a healthy dose of the unreal. The book, hardly a fairy tale, depicts the existential clash between lycans (a kind of almost-werewolf) and the rest of uninfected humanity, amid a political climate that echoes a host of current affairs both foreign and domestic.
If and when the book is brought to the screen, one can already envision the opening expository sequence, with medieval Scandinavian huntsman ritualistically eating the brains of wolves and exposing themselves to an infection that will come to be named "lobos." The afflicted gain the ability to change forms at will: teeth grow and sharpen, fur prickles, strength and speed increase, senses and appetites soar. Despite the fact that the infection leaves morality unaffected, and most lycans are perfectly functioning members of society, uninfected humanity has trouble viewing them without suspicion, and, after centuries of conflict, the "Lupine Republic" — situated between Finland and Russia — is established in 1948 as a lycan homeland. This is a serviceable enough solution until it is discovered that the republic sits over a mother lode of uranium. At the start of the novel, the United States, increasingly dependent on nuclear power, has been occupying the republic for years, ostensibly to provide security. The occupation is unpopular with many American lycans, who are kept regulated and medicated under force of law.
The allegory is broad enough to encompass almost any persecuted minority that you could name: There is the postwar resettlement reminiscent of the Jews; the 1960s push for recognition that recalls the civil rights movement; and perhaps even, in some lycans' unwillingness to submit to a national registry, the concerns of today's Second Amendment advocates. But with Percy's unsubtle one-for-one transposition of our real world of terrorism and misguided backlash, it's fair to wonder why he didn't drop the werewolf thing entirely and write a book about the twin evils of jihad and Islamophobia — besides, of course, the fact that we would be denied visceral visuals like this: "Teeth flash. Foam rips from a seat cushion like a strip of fat. Blood splatters, decorating the porthole windows, dripping from the ceiling. ... A woman's face tears away like a mask ... a neck is chewed through in a terrible kiss."
Unfortunately, Percy's considerable powers of perception and description don't extend much into the interior lives of his characters. Through the book's 544 pages, the two teenage protagonists don't grow so much as they simply endure, ferried from one massacre or shootout to the next, and one is struck more by their survivability than by their accessibility. Characters don't need to be relatable to be memorable, but they do need to be displayed. Percy is masterful at describing what is happening to their bodies, but seems to care much less about what is happening to their minds and souls. The well-paced plot is action-packed and only rarely strays into cliche (though when it does, it glares: a person of interest's face is revealed in a computer-analyzed photograph after digital enhancement; an incapacitated character is rescued from an ambush by a shamanistic old woman who nurses him back to health at her cabin in the woods). But without a deeper reason to care about the characters, the story lacks the connective tissue necessary to lend the lycan metaphor meaningful moral resonance.
Percy's book will surely be hailed as a more "literary" brand of genre fiction, and if by literary we mean rich with vivid imagery and precise description, then those hailers are surely correct. But if our threshold includes some commitment to teaching us about ourselves, either the unique challenges of being a human animal or the destiny of our species, then the book will impress as simply a collection of arresting, grisly scenes. Readers willing to forgo such concerns will sink their fangs into Red Moon. As if the news isn't compelling or scary enough these days, try the news with werewolves.
Nicholas Mancusi's criticism has appeared in Newsweek, Newsday, The Daily Beast, American Arts Quarterly, and elsewhere. He blogs at galleyist.com.