Monday, August 8, 2016

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

“It was a story, of course.
 It’s all we’ve got” (281).

As for werewolves, so for us all.

When I talk to my students about fiction, we talk about how all stories are answering one big question: What does it mean to be human? And we talk about (using Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor as our guide) how genre stories, particularly those involving “non” or “extra” human characters (aliens, mythological creatures, robots, zombies, and so on) help foreground this question. The best stories challenge the conventions of the genre, and mix the genres themselves. They are mongrels, if you will.

Stephen Graham Jones’ incantatory novel Mongrels is a werewolf story. Hell, it’s practically an ethnography—such is the depth of detail Graham Jones provides in building the origin stories of not only our teenage narrator and his family, but of werewolves in general. For those of us whose knowledge of werewolves is largely limited to Team Jacob in Twilight, such stories are illuminating. I’d recommend Mongrels on the strength of those stories alone. But those stories alone cannot account for the power of this novel.

For Mongrels is also a coming-of-age story, the story of our narrator growing up without a mother and father, relying on his Aunt Libby and Uncle Darren to fill those roles in his life. Relying on the stories of his grandfather, stories whose meanings change as our narrator grows up and understands more about his life and his family. The story of an isolated boy who yearns to turn, to join his aunt and uncle as full-fledged werewolves. To become, in his own way, a “real boy,” to become “one of us,” to echo some other stories of coming-of-age and fitting in.

Unfolding in episodic fashion, Mongrels shows us a family using stories to make sense of their past and their future, and a present that is always in flux, shifting like the werewolves themselves, shifting location as the family must always move to escape the carnage they leave in their wake, intentionally or not. Filled with humor, horror, intrigue, and insight, Mongrels unwinds its secrets across the South and the Southwest, secrets both allegorical and historical. For it is a werewolf story, but Mongrels tells us ultimately about the sadness of growing up, and how growth is always loss, and the role family plays in all of this. You cannot shift and remain the same, after all. In the capable claws of Stephen Graham Jones, Mongrels is a story about us. Because stories are all we have.

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