TODAY’S RECOMMENDED BOOK: MONGRELS, BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES (2015)

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.20.11Setting: The American South.

Premise: Instead of a more conventional plot, the book is divided into episodes that could all work as standalone novellas or short stories. The main focus is on the shifting relationship between the unnamed narrator and his aunt and uncle, both werewolves, over the course of his childhood and teenage years.

Why you should read this book:

Because Mongrels’ werewolves are real people. Jones is obviously a massive werewolf nerd, and at first I thought he’d reimagined werewolf lore through the sorts of questions you’d discuss with your best friend you always see weird horror films with—what happens if a werewolf gets a tick? how do werewolves get their education? what would a werewolf drive? But, page by page, it became clear that the real inspiration for Jones’ reimagined werewolf lore is real life lived by real people—ticks are bad news, education comes from tv and your uncle’s questionable stories, and any old car will do. In order to avoid revealing their true nature to humans, Jones’ werewolves are forced to drift from town to town, living at or below the poverty line, eating junk food, getting whatever job they can get, no matter how dodgy or poorly paid. This makes for rather grim reading at times, but, also because these werewolves are real people, there is a lot of humour mixed in with their woes, and touching family moments.

In fact, this is really a book about family, and belonging. The big question in the narrator’s head for much of the book is whether or not he’ll turn out to be a werewolf too—whether or not he truly belongs with his aunt and uncle, whether or not they’ll be proud of him. Jones does a particularly great job portraying the uncle-nephew relationship, easily the best part of the book, particularly for someone who, like me, had been an uncle for about a year by the time I’d opened the pages of Jones’ book. I remember thinking, man, this is guy is a mess, but he loves his nephew, and I can only hope my bond with my nephew will be that strong when he’s older. Also: I don’t care if my nephew doesn’t turn out to be a werewolf when he’s sixteen, I will love him regardless.

The style is interesting too. This might all be in my head, but Jones’ prose has a very peculiar rhythm—you’re reading a sentence and then you get to the end of it and you feel like you missed something grammatically—then you go back and see that it’s all good, just that a missing “and” had tricked you into thinking the sentence would be longer than it actually turned out. Or I read something like “the moon was always full in his stories” and for some reason it takes me a few seconds to understand that it means that, in his stories, the moon was always full, and not that, for example, his stories were always full of moon, whatever that may mean. Normally, when I’m having trouble figuring out a book’s rhythm, I read it aloud to myself, but even this didn’t quite help this time. Overall, though, this ended up really working for me: encountering Jones’ prose feels almost exactly like encountering a werewolf, as it is strange and unsettling, unnatural, hard to tame.

It should be clear that, between the occasional grimness and the wolflike prose, this is not always an easy read, regardless of all its humour and heart. There were times when I found this book frustrating, and almost gave up. And I didn’t keep my copy–I donated it to a charity shop. But, of all the books I’ve given away to friends and libraries and charity shops over the years, this is the one that I wish I still had. Because it’s been almost a year since I read it, and I still think about it.

And if you’re still not sure about reading Mongrels, I highly recommend this short video-essay by Jones himself (the essay proper starts around 2.30 minutes in, though watch the whole video if you want to see Jones’ werewolf action figures). And this is the book’s first chapter, available for free.

Extras

Not all werewolves are content with any old car.

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