Jason Starr (with Ken Bruen) co-wrote the Max, Slide and Bust trilogy for Hard Case Crime, as well as a standalone, Fake ID. His noir books are all hard-hitting, ultra-contemporary stylised action thrillers - deliberately (and often self-consciously) edgy. My first impression of The Pack (2012) was that it would be an excuse for more of the same. To some degree, Mr. Starr was writing werewolf fiction already. He was just short on wolves.
The Pack doesn't have the high-speed wackiness of Mr. Starr's other work, at least, not at the beginning. Simon Burns is a New York advertising man, an easy-going, quasi-vegetarian man is a gray flannel suit. His wife, Alison, is in pharmaceutical sales and they have an adorable son, Jeremy (age 3). They're the picture of yuppie happiness. That is, until Simon's abruptly fired. After a bit of discussion, the couple decides that Simon will stay at home and take care of Jeremy. Their savings can afford it for a little while, plus, they were feeling guilty about leaving Jeremy with a nanny all day.
Simon takes to being a stay-at-home dad like a fish to Scrabble. Jeremy screams and cries and poops and Simon is utterly miserable. On top of that, there's the festering unfairness of it all. He didn't deserve to be fired. He's a nice guy, a team player. But he'd fallen behind in the alpha dog politics of the agency. No killer instinct, couldn't go for the throat (etc, etc). It stings.
Things turn around when Simon meets a group of other dads at the park. Michael, Ramon and Charlie are so together. Relaxed, confident and secure, they've all got cool kids and great lives. Simon discovers that their suave demeanour is no act. Sure, they're a little weird (especially Michael, who never asks questions and only eats steak), but they're supportive and incredibly friendly.
Simon's delighted to have understanding friends and soon starts hanging out with them without the kids around - including one evening that he (frighteningly) can't remember (the fault of Michael's 'secret family beer'). Although he's a little concerned about blacking out (in New Jersey, no less), Simon's doubts are swiftly overshadowed by the wonderful new changes in his life. He's hearty and enthusiastic, hungry all the time and possessed of an (extremely) vigorous sex drive. Alison, previously irritated by Simon's dispirited behaviour, is now shocked by his extreme enthusiasm (in all things).
The bulk of The Pack is about the practical realities of modern lycanthropy. To some degree, this could be a prequel to The Last Werewolf, as it has the same lusty commitment to practical detail. Being a wolf-man is about merging the two species, and where they meet isn't always comfortable. Simon exercises constantly, as he's swamped in a lupine energy that he just can't shake. Similarly, he gets used to going to McDonald's, ordering a dozen burgers and then throwing away the buns. The changes are first humorous and then routine - and that's when The Pack becomes slightly scary. Simon's changing into the unknown, and that's no laughing matter.
Mr. Starr's slightly manic style is evidenced in the book's secondary storyline, which follows Michael and his girlfriend (kind of), Olivia. Her plot is straight out of Bust, with the monosyllabic Michael lurking around, annoyingly hypermasculine, while Olivia swoons about, bragging about her sex life. Michael represents a sort of unctuously perfect male - living in a beautiful brewery, driving a ridiculous car, demanding (and receiving) female attention with a grunt from his chiseled mouth. He's the walking representation of animal magnetism. As a contrast to Simon, Michael's an interesting character; he's possessed of the confidence and stability that poor Simon lacks. But as the focal point of his own storyline, he reads like the worst of paranormal romance. On one level The Pack is about the awkward merging of man and wolf. On another, this metaphor is extended to describe the marriage of realism and fantasy. Simon's struggles represent the best of this, but Michael's fan-fictional lifestyle is neither "real" realism nor "real" fantasy.
Werewolves are becoming the de rigeur urban fantasy trope for male readers. To some degree, this is welcome - books like The Pack and The Last Werewolf are interesting explorations of the lines between man and animal and the fragile bonds of civilisation and whatnot. And in books aimed for adolescents, there are better parallels between lycanthropy and puberty than there are with, say, vampirism. On the other hand, books like The Pack too frequently often rely on a note of "poor little middle class white man" to make their point. Simon is emasculated at the start of the book: taking care of his kid, no longer the breadwinner, misunderstood by all the women in his life, seeing a therapist, even forced into vegetarianism. Might as well cut his balls off, right? The story is set so that being a werewolf doesn't make him more of a wolf, it makes him more of a man. When he is "himself" and allowed to indulge his man-needs (steak, sex), Simon makes everyone else uncomfortable - especially his wife. The Last Werewolf is very similar, with Jacob Marlowe's hirsute masculinity being inextricably linked to his freedom. To cage a man, according to this trend, is to deny him its true nature.
Although the trend is a little worrisome, none of this should detract from The Pack on its own. It is a solid thriller about a foundering man who finds an unusual way to regain his self-esteem. The ending is set up for further adventures, but, if anything, The Pack benefits from its existing, ambiguous resolution. There's nothing final about Simon's transformation or its impact on his life - much the reverse. This is a story about a man (or wolf) in motion, trying to find the best place to rest.