THE LAST WEREWOLF, by Glen Duncan. Alfred A. Knopf, 293 pp., $25.95
Jake Marlowe isn't really such a bad guy, even if he did cannibalize his wife. One might even say, 200 years after the original bloodlust, that Jake turned out to be on the side of the angels -- he fought against the Nazis, Fascists and Khmer Rouge, after all.
And the wife, the pregnant wife, just happened to be there after his transformation. As the saying goes, "Even a man who's pure at heart / and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms / and the moon is full and bright."
But things have changed since Lon Chaney Jr.'s day. As British novelist Glen Duncan repeatedly tells us in "The Last Werewolf," God is dead, Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" is the new Bible, and in the wake of 20th and 21st century horrors, the old monsters don't seem so monstrous.
At any rate, Jake Marlowe has had enough. He's the last of his kind -- werewolves have lost their bite in terms of turning the rest of us. And he's 200 years old, so he's willing to turn himself into the Hunt -- werewolf hunters led by a man whose father Jake had for dinner.
Duncan does a great job in the first third of the book establishing Jake's ultra-world-weary existentialism as he casts a wry eye on our more pedestrian comings and goings. Jake Marlowe is the thinking man's vampire, Philip Marlowe in another genre. Witness the epiphany of Jake's main squeeze: "Thus she'd discovered the Conradian truth: The first horror is there's horror. The second is you accommodate it."
But here's the Duncanian truth. Your first impression is that he has taken the horror novel to a new literary level. The second is you grow tired of it. The longer the novel goes on, and it goes on for nearly 300 pages, the more you feel you're in the presence of an English major who wants to show off how much he's read instead of a good writer with a story to tell.
Worse, as events force Jake into becoming a man of action, the plot twists seem the stuff of Hollywood screenplays. Even the sex scenes call attention to themselves for their naughtiness rather than their erotic power.
For all that, "The Last Werewolf" is a good read, part of a growing trend of "smart horror," like "The Radleys," last year's excellent vampire novel by Matt Haig. Sometimes, the most cogent observations come from outsiders -- and who could be more of an outsider than a vampire or a werewolf? The more Duncan has Marlowe cast his eye on our behavior, rather than on his own, the more "The Last Werewolf" has to say.
Will there be future adventures for the last werewolf? I hope so, particularly if Duncan forgets about all those books he's read. And any possible movie rights.