Hold the Dark
By William Giraldi (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014, 201 pages, $24.95)
A reader expecting to find a recognizable Alaska in this short novel, described on its jacket as "a terrifying literary thriller," will be disappointed -- or perhaps enthralled. The landscape and characters conjured up by Bostonian William Giraldi are no more true to the place than Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is to Africa or Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" is to the American Southwest. Instead, Giraldi has evoked a wild, cold ("gelid" is his word) world he's called Alaska in which to explore the idea of evil. As one character says early on, "This wildness here is inside us. Inside everything."
The story begins: "The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut." The mother of one such child contacts nature writer and wolf expert Russell Core, asking him to come to the village to find the body of her son and kill the wolf that took him. The boy's father is a soldier fighting a desert war who doesn't learn of the boy's disappearance until he comes home, wounded. By then -- not to give too much away -- the hunt has become something else, and it's not about wolves. Bodies (also not of wolves) pile up in gory detail. Various figures, oracles and hags, appear with wolf masks and amulets. The landscape is always a frozen wasteland, snow is always falling from a "wan" sky, the "Yup'ik" villagers dressed in animal skins are silent and secretive. The protagonists drive their chained-up trucks into the wilderness. The wolf expert fears that "man belongs neither in civilization nor nature -- because we are aberrations between two states of being."
Nature is behaving oddly in this place. Besides wolves dragging off children, there's stifling summer heat, warming winters, melting glaciers, a paucity of game. Elders whisper of a curse, "of punishment sent for the sins of the village." Medora, the missing child's mother, is afflicted by "some warp in the fabric." She dons the wooden wolf mask.
When the end comes and the dark heart of the beast is exposed, we discover what was "unnatural" all along. Hint: It has nothing to do with messing with the climate.
Years ago, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe took Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" to task for dehumanizing Africans. Let us hope that no readers of "Hold the Dark" leave Giraldi's parable of nature gone wild thinking that Alaskans are inbred, superstitious, booger-eating, merciless murderers. There's little to like or relate to in the beings that populate this book.
Giraldi is a well-respected essayist and critic and the author of one previous novel. He has been praised for his "originality of language" (Chicago Tribune) and "a galloping prose embedded with a hard poetry" (Booklist). What one reader finds stylishly fresh another might find self-consciously mannered, a showy overstuffing. Let each reader judge from a typical passage: "This stolid village remained gripped in snow and stillness, and over the hills lay a breadth without end, an echoing cold with a mind that won't be known. Yellow-orange squares burned in the sides of log and frame homes, stone spires exhaling wood smoke." Or this, describing a villager standing by a burn barrel: "He saw the red-orange radiance on her jowls, her creature garment thick and soiled, pungent-looking in the firelight, an anorak a century old."
Alaska readers who might not be attracted to repeated bloodbaths or the examination of violence as an "inevitable, organic outcrop of the landscape's indifferent decrees" (as Giraldi defended it in a recent Daily Beast response to comparisons of his violent scenes to those in Cormac McCarthy's novels) might instead enjoy noting details that contrast with our northern reality. In Giraldi's mythic place, a hundred miles "inland" from Anchorage, the residents hunt moose, elk, caribou and deer. They put things in root cellars to freeze. A man sits on the spacious floor between the two seats in a bush plane. Caribou defeat wolves with their lethal racks of talons. There are pine trees and totem poles. Someone went trawling for halibut. The people use "wolf's oil" as a cure and camouflage themselves with "wolf down." The wooden water tower is "useless in winter," and yet the homes have flush toilets and hot baths. It's so cold that the spilled guts of dead men freeze immediately to the ground.
Writers everywhere will continue to build fictions around the ideas that a place as wild and strange to them as Alaska suggest, and this is a good thing. Imaginative renderings of the known and unknown are what art is all about. If "Hold the Dark" holds little light to the "real" Alaska, it nonetheless can transport readers into a nightmarish dream that asks us to consider the mysteries of "nature" and man.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."