As long as there are tiny rural towns to pass on long and nearly empty stretches of country highway, the ones that you sometimes wonder about for days after stopping there for gas, and as long as writers like Thomas Maltman are around to tell the stories of these places and the people in them, then regionalism will never die. In his latest novel, Little Wolves, Thomas Maltman appoints himself the scribe, as Steinbeck did with the central California coast, Twain did with Missouri and its river folk, Cather with the Nebraska plains, and Faulkner with the deep South, of an often overlooked corner of America’s massively diverse landscape: Minnesota. It would take an ambitious writer to create a novel that captures the region’s physical peculiarity, with its dense and wolf-inhabited forests, its rural sprawl, its mosquito-thrumming summers and apocalyptic winters, but this is just one of Maltman’s many towering ambitions in the novel. Maltman embodies every role a writer can: he is equal parts poet, pastor, historian, pagan folklorist, and weatherman. And as he dodges back and forth between each role, we get no greater sense than of his fearlessness.
Setting his story in the fictional rural town of Lone Mountain, Maltman makes it clear that the ride will not be easy. After the first of a succession of folkloric interludes about a boy raised with wolves, the novel begins just after the occurrence of a town-shaking, heinous act. Seth Fallon, a troubled youth with a penchant for Metallica and trench coats, takes the life of Sheriff Will Gunderson and then his own with a shotgun he sawed off himself. The narrative framework is like that of a mystery novel: the bare-bone facts of the bloody crime come first, and a protagonist works her way to discover the why, which, of course, is never as simple as the townspeople think. In this case, Maltman gives us two unlikely detectives: Clara Warren, the young and pregnant wife of the town parish’s new pastor, Logan; and Grizz Fallon, the gruff and alcoholic single father of the murderer. Beginning with Clara, each chapter rotates between her and Grizz’s perspective, and the two vastly different characters eventually meet in their pursuit of discovering the truth behind Seth’s actions.
The complexity of Maltman’s narrative is most evident in Clara’s story. Her aim is not only to understand the tragedy of Seth Fallon, with whom she has had a close relationship as his substitute English teacher, but also to understand her own identity within the town’s strange history. We eventually learn that it was Clara who initially urged Logan to take the pastoral position in Lone Mountain on account of her own ambiguous past: through a series of cryptic stories about coyotes and a car wreck that her father told her as a child, Clara is able to glean that her long-dead mother may have had ties to the dubiously named town. And as Clara sifts through the mire of whispered gossip from old church ladies and townsfolk, some charming in their good-hearted ignorance and others chilling in their serpentine wickedness, she unearths a tangled mess of skeletons. It’s in this mess that Maltman does his most impressive work, juggling every dirty secret and unspoken deed with equal grace; he never allows the thematic complexity to override the steady, mesmerizing flow of the story. It’s in this dream-like flow that Clara grows. She’s our hero from the start, our reluctant but convicted truth-seeker, and the best picture we have of Maltman’s control.
If Clara Warren shows us Maltman’s control of a complex narrative, Grizz Fallon shows us his heart. In Grizz, Maltman gives us a man who very well could be as broken as is humanly possible. For is there any role more tragic than that of the father of the killer who has killed himself? And a single father at that, one with his own history of answerless death. When a tragedy like this happens, questions of who is to blame inevitably surface. And in a town like Lone Mountain, where a person’s history is his merit, be it long-whispered fabrication or earnest truth, who else is there to blame than a man like Grizz? These are the questions raised with Grizz, the ones at which Maltman refuses to flinch. As far as the people of Lone Mountain are concerned, he’s the man who made the monster, and it’s Maltman’s task not only to expose the truth to them but to Grizz as well. In the chaos of the murder’s aftermath, Pastor Logan asks Grizz, “Do you believe that you can be forgiven?” and we lean in to hear his answer. What we realize in that moment is that Maltman has been asking us the same question all along. When death and hell are so absurdly close, can life and grace be closer?
Maltman turns Lone Mountain, Minnesota, into a modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, but he spares his readers the nihilism of a Witch Trial. He paints human depravity as though his brush were dipped in blood, but it’s his ability to dot the canvas with bright spots, with small moments of triumph over the ugly spiral of generational sin in a small, highly religious town, that makes this mostly dark tale something vibrant. And what about the title? The coyotes that apparently give the book its name are more than just mascots to give the action a trendy aesthetic flare. Maltman’s treatment of the dubious carnivores that mingle the borders of civilization and the wild is much like his treatment of his darkest characters, Seth and Grizz Fallon. He knows their tendency for carnage, their inherit wildness, but he’s careful enough in approaching them that we begin to see their complexity, maybe even their goodness. With one foot clamped in a steel trap, every creature bares its teeth.
Maltman’s greatest admonition is that we always take a second look, whether it’s at the flicker of a headline about a young shooter, or the all-too-perfect luster of the old church’s stained glass windows. Call it “Midwest Gothic” or “rural murder mystery,” Little Wolves is on the one hand a tragedy of a place consuming its people, and on the other a triumph of a few who can rise above it. And like anyone who attempts to testify to the light, Thomas Maltman knows that it is most piercing in thickest darkness.
Little Wolves, by Thomas Maltman (Soho Press, 2013) To Purchase a Copy, Please Click any Hyperlink: Indie Bound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop
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