Sunday Salon: Beasts R Us: Review of “The Last Werewolf” by Glen Duncan

The Sunday

Note: There are no spoilers in this review.

Usually I pick up a book involving the paranormal when I want a light break. I was astonished to discover that this book is more like a China Mieville story than a fluff piece. (Mieville is a brilliant English fantasy/science fiction writer.) It is quite literary and the prose evinces considerable intelligence and skill. I would in fact conjecture that the author wanted to tackle the subject of weltschmerz but figured you would need a long-lived person to do the feeling justice: thus, a werewolf. (A werewolf is a much more appealing trope for this purpose than a vampire, since a vampire never goes back to being “human” and feeling what he or she used to feel, whereas a werewolf reverts to human form on all days except those when the moon is full).

Jacob (“Jake”) Marlowe has been alive 201 years. He is believed to be the last werewolf in existence. Once a month, when the moon is full, he is overtaken by a hunger for human flesh, the sating of which cannot be avoided, and moreover arouses a frisson of sexual fulfillment. But he tries to do as little harm as possible by the act:

“Two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist. I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.”

An organization called WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) is dedicated to the total elimination of all paranormal beings, and WOCOP’s head hunter – a vigilante Van Helsing type, is after Jake with a vengeance. In addition, the vampires have come to believe that a wolf bite can confer immunity to the sun, and thus they are also after Jake. Jake and his human protector Harley can barely keep up with all the threats to Jake. In fact, Harley himself is struggling with Jake, because Jake is tired of the utter sameness and repetitiveness of life, and just wants to give in and die.

The characters in this book pose so many fascinating questions: What role do monsters play in the collective imagination? Do we mainly talk about vampires and werewolves as romantic characters now because we no longer have need of the monstrous in the imagination? (I.e., we provide sufficient examples of our own monstrousness in real life, what with genocides and terrorist acts, etc.). How far have humans actually evolved from the beasts from which we descended? In light of the beastliness of human behavior, what could the meaning of life possibly be, or is there no meaning? If there is no meaning, is there no God? Jake and Harley continuously ponder these questions, and there are some very intriguing ideas bandied about on their resolution.

One area of inquiry – the beast in the man – is answered in part by the emphasis on sex in Jake’s life. This book has a lot of sex, and much of it is what the characters themselves might define as “beast-like.” I should digress a bit to admit that one of my favorite things to do after reading a book full of outré sex scenes is to plague my husband with questions such as, “Why are male authors always talking about x, y, and z? Did YOU ever do that?” (Depending on his mood, his response is either to laugh uproariously or to pull out the batteries from his hearing aids.) If you too like to play this game, this book will give you plenty of material. The sex may be raunchy to some, but the language is glorious, viz.:

“…six carnal hours had passed. … Now we lay on the bed like starfish. It’s one of the Platonic forms, lying with someone on a hotel bed after transcendent sex.”

[after meeting someone new]: “These, I knew, were the high-octane minutes, days, weeks, when anything she does can pluck the phallic string.”

It’s not just sex that inspires the author to flights of felicitous prose. He talks about the first time he sees another paranormal:

“I remembered the days when seeing someone move through the air like that would have been a thrilling shock, the days before we’d all seen it countless times in the movies. Modernity’s mimetic inversion: You see the real and are struck by how much it looks like a tediously seamless special effect.”

Ennui itself may be tiresome, but the observations it elicits by the characters are far from it:

“There’s a reason humans peg-out around eighty: prose fatigue. It looks like organ failure or cancer or stroke but it’s really just the inability to carry on clambering through the assault course of mundane cause and effect. If we ask Sheila then we can’t ask Ron. If I have the kippers now then it’s quiche for tea. Four score years is about all the ifs and thens you can take. Dementia’s the sane realization you just can’t be doing with all that anymore.”


“Life, like the boring drunk at the office party, keeps seeking you out, leaning on you, killing you with pointless yarns and laughing bad-breathed in your face at its own unfunny jokes.”

And there is this beautifully crafted commentary of Jake’s driving trip across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah:

“Those unritzy states of seared openness, giant arenas for the colossal geometry of light and weather. Here the main performance is still planetary, a lumbering introspective working-out of masses and pressures yielding huge accidents of beauty: thunderheads like floating anvils; a sudden blizzard. Geological time, it dawns on you, is still going on.”

Trenchant and witty cultural references pepper the story. Talking about his preference for younger victims on which to feed when the moon is full, Jake observes: “Nothing like the blood and meat of the young. You can taste the audacity of hope.” …”I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God, and in the United States when Wall Street reduced the American Dream to a broken suitcase and a worn-out shoe.” Clever references (even direct quotes!) and parallels to Nabokov’s Lolita fill the second half of the book. And the pièce de résistance, the absolute best line in the book is a mutation of one of the best lines in Jane Eyre that I won’t spoil for you. But it alone makes the price of the book worthwhile!

Discussion: This is an erudite, thoughtful book with a riveting plot in addition to a contemplative bent. While interrogating moral decency, the author savages it with a complicated choreography of biological compulsion and media-informed indifference. He excoriates people who live in “the opaque plastic bubble of television and booze,” while nature’s magnificence goes unnoted:

“We lay near each other but not touching, silent recipients of Pan’s globally ignored dawn suite, a soft exhalation through turf and leaf, the whirr of small wings, the introspective clambering of beetles, the shiver of water. The world…is oozing, teeming, crawling with miracles.”

He writes about being stuck with what you are, “the lousy furniture you can’t change” – in this case, having a lycanthropic heart.” Is there a hell then? Or is it a fiction we inherit to maintain control over behavior? Or is hell something else; is it life that has gone on too long? Could it simply be life without love?

There are some truly inspirational uses of language in this book, as when, in Wales, Jacob travels through “the vowel-starved hills”; when he, musing on the absence of God, sees the night sky “like an abandoned warehouse of stars”; when he characterizes a scene as like “an eighties album cover”; or when he characterizes himself – half monster, half man, as “a cocktail of contraries.” Even while the story may be bestial and sometimes brutal, the often luminous language is worth celebrating.

Evaluation: Any drawbacks of this book were more than offset for me by the glorious use of language by the author, and his exposing of how much of the beast all of us have within us. The characters are remarkably likeable, in spite of their various eccentricities and predilections. A truly impressive piece of literature.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 2011


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Sunday Salon: Beasts R Us: Review of “The Last Werewolf” by Glen Duncan

  1. Jenny says:

    This book sounds fascinating. I have wondered the same questions when I read books that have such large amounts of raunchiness lol. The picture and caption at the end of your post is hilarious!

  2. Frances says:

    People whose opinion I trust (like yours of course) keep popping up and saying how much they enjoyed this book. Have to admit being very skeptical but your China Mieville comparison has almost got me. Love his work and looking forward to Embassytown.

  3. celawerd says:

    Sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Sandy says:

    Readers are ALL OVER the damn place with this one. I have to admit, the quotes you provided are amazing. I have this one loaded on the old iPod, waiting to be chosen. It was the top priority for me when I first got it, then people began to say not-nice things about it and I held off. Hey, you know it would be perfect for RIP. Excellent review, Jill. Slug my arse!

  5. zibilee says:

    The fact that you say that this book is reminiscent of China Mieville is enough to push me into the must read camp! It sounds fascinating and visceral and just wonderful, and I bet that I would have an amazing time parsing out all the questions and ideas in this one. This was also one heck of a review! You manage to be elegant and erudite without totally going over everyone’s head. Great job!

  6. I have a feeling I’m not smart enough for the book, because I’m barely smart enough for your review. This probably isn’t for me.

  7. Julie P. says:

    Wow — now this is a paranormal book that I might appreciate.

  8. what are those creatures up to in the pic? that is a bit upsetting.

  9. Alyce says:

    I burst out laughing when I saw that turtle picture and how you related it to the book! My response to scenes such as those in the book is to laugh too. If I were going to read paranormal fiction I would probably lean toward reading books such as this or those by China Melville.

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    I do that to my husband too 🙂 We joke about the LG from time to time and was from a book 5 years ago!

  11. Jenners says:

    What a find you got here!! I love some of the excerpts you shared … and I plan on starting that little “sex” game with Mr. Jenners.

  12. Danielle says:

    LOL Love that you ask your husband about the scenes in the book! I think I’d be tempted to do the same thing, because I’m always wondering about what exactly they have going on in their minds to write certain things. Interesting. But this sounds amazing, writing wise, and though I’d normally not pick it up your review has me considering it. Excellent job!

    Congratulations on your BBAW Short List nomination today as well! YAY! 🙂

  13. Care says:

    Sold! Or at least, I am tbr-ing this one. LOL at the cute (?) turtle porn photo.

  14. Care says:

    Oh! And congrats on the BBAW nom.

  15. Ti says:

    I read a few pages and I can’t get into it. I have it for a few more days so I will try again but it’s not grabbing me.

    Everyone is talking about the sex. That is the one item that everyone seems to note. Sex, sex and more sex.

  16. Ahahahaha! That turtle picture is perfection. Sex shouldn’t be allowed at a Santa villiage!!!

    You were much better able to distance yourself from the literal sex than I was. However, I didn’t know the trick about confronting your husband with the male sexual psyche – and my husband doesn’t have hearing aids to turn off!

    One thing that I loved about this book was our little email conversations. 🙂 They were worth the nausea.

  17. Laurie C says:

    I hesitated before reading your review because it looked like you were going to say everything I wanted to say about The Last Werewolf only much, much better. And I was right. You did!
    The only thing I would add was that the audiobook version is narrated by Robin Sachs is great. I did want to note passages, though, but that’s harder to do when you’re not reading the print version.

  18. Cipriano says:

    I think you’ve just given me the perfect idea for this year’s Halloween read! I always try to find something with a good mix of scary, spooky, literary… sexy.
    Thank you for such a great review. I’m putting this book on my wishlist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.