Friday, September 14, 2012

"A MURDER OF WOLVES" by Gary J. Cook

This buddy-cops mystery begins without them.  A woman on a mysterious errand in the Montana wilderness happens on a staged suicide, intervenes, and triggers mayhem but escapes.  The rest of the book seeks to answer the questions all this raises, but it does not.  Quite.  Just the same, it does a good job of peeling the onion and takes us on an energetic tour of the Flathead Valley in Montana -- where I never go because it’s too dangerous.  Not so much in terms of murder as in terms of danger to your head-space.  Too many people with too many agendas.

If you use the search strip under the red map at the right, you can pull up earlier reviews by me of Cook’s previous two novels.  He creates a world, not just a plot.  Under the action and the fooling around that are characteristic of Cook’s novels, and the attraction for a lot of readers, are some serious questions.  One is how much Blackfeet/Blackfoot dreams can persist.  Don’t get all fancy and technical about insisting on whether Blackft is singular or plural.  The cognoscenti know that the original term was in the original language and can NOT be translated.  Cook contacted me years ago for advice about the Piegan/Amskapi Pikuni/Nitzitahpi and I got so impatient with him that he disengaged.  But he WAS paying attention.  

It’s important that the main protagonists are two people because so much is in the seemingly joking repartée between them and their debates about what’s going on.  That also provides occasional relief from Harrison-Ford-type hurtling violent action.  A little goofing, a little sex, a little tech stuff -- more about evasive driving than weapons.  Things roll along in an understated and therefore more trustworthy fashion.  My memory is unreliable, but he seems to have upgraded his attitude towards women a little.  (The tattoos on the bull-dyke wash off.  Is that an upgrade??)

The buddies are war veterans but that’s only echo.  Most guys like this are politically conservative, wanting to identify with power, but these two -- maybe this is the real Montana factor -- learned a different lesson: that humans are the same everywhere.  Neither are they locked into liberal assumptions about what is good or bad and the desire to legislate peace, harmony, healing, abstinence and justice.  Instead there is a deep and justified suspicion of anyone who is a “True Believer.”  If it weren’t for Eric Hoffer, I’d say this is a post-modern book in the best sense.  Except that Eric Hoffer’s idea was that dangerous zealots believe destructive means are justified by the ultimate end in a glorious future for all.  The contemporary users of destructive means have the goal of enriching a secret oligarchy or collaborating oligarchies.  They are as handy with documents and databases as with ordnance.  Those who rip off the mask of secrecy will have to live in the embassies of small countries for a long time.  They oppose the de-personalization of corporations.

“War” used to be something that happened between nations that could afford to employ huge numbers of soldiers and devise incredibly dangerous and expensive weapons of mass destruction.  Uniforms, battle lines, honorable behavior towards women and children, and all those other brakes and encumbrances are gone.  “Cheney” and “Rumsfeld” were only outcroppings in a stony substrate now working itself to the surface around the planet.  But all that is implied.  What one reads is clean, strong prose and constantly shifting action, interspersed with a few occasional lines of sensory description, enough to keep the reader located.  Cook has become very skillful at using near-violence, suspense.

Here’s a bit of action, almost at random:

“The big man’s hand tightening around the M-16’s pistol grip, the large muscles of his forearm in sharp relief.  He moved the flash suppressor fractionally above Joe’s head and fired the remainder of the 30-round magazine, the barrel climbing as the rounds cracked into the darkness.

“Cordite reeked in the yellow light.”

And some scenery from another section:

“The air was heavy with the smell of dust and pine, deep blue sky between the trees.  Flies and other flying bugs flew through shafts of light and dust.”

Much of the wisdom and message of the book comes through memories of older and wiser men:  “The Gunny had trained them to think about perspective.  The perspective of the people they were tasked to kill: tough mountain people fighting the latest in a series of foreign invasions that stretched back through all of recorded history.  He didn’t understand them.  Didn’t want to understand them.  Didn’t understand their politics or their religion or their culture.  Didn’t want to.  Perspective is not the same thing as understanding, the Gunny had explained.  Perspective is all about balance.  Perspective is about seeing your weaknesses through someone else’s eyes.  Proper perspective is what will keep you people alive.”

All this is about indigenous people.  The universal is conveyed through the particularity of Joe Big Snake’s Blackfeet warrior heritage -- not James Willard Schultz adventures, but the real and anchored guidance of his older relatives.  Plan ahead.  Cache supplies.  Know the terrain.  Keep your weapons clean.  When it all goes apeshit, trust your gut.  But then there is the Great Unseeable Mystic Mystery that even science tries to tell us is really there (heard of “dark matter”?) -- though few listen.  Not everyone feels it.

The tipping point of the story is a dream sequence about the rattlesnake as a protective spirit, which Joe Big experiences, sweats out, and accepts.  After that it is the awareness of family and the ambiguity of what protection really means that is always in the background through a long chase scene, inventive and detailed, demonstrating that not even helicopters and drones are a match for people who belong to their land.  But the vulnerability of family is always there.

I hesitate to review this book in this way because I’m discovering that a lot of people are so frightened of the reality of the modern world that they will attack and deny the idea.  This could frighten them more.  Just enjoy the rousing cop story with military overtones in the Flathead Valley.  Oh, and “murder of . . .” is supposed to be “murder of ravens” indicating a flock.  I don’t know why the switch to wolves.  My bad.  Probably.

Many people are aware of the veterans living on the street, the veterans struggling with PTSD and organic brain damage, the families suffering, and the price of losing so many young strong bright people.  We have still not come anywhere near digesting what it means for us that they have returned after having seen a different world.  Or what it means to have so much secret money and power invested in professional soldiers essentially for hire.  Check the news every morning and you’ll begin to see.  Until all that turns on us.


Art Durkee said...

Very cool. I'm intrigued, and will seek this out. I read a lot of non-mainstream fiction precisely because I'm looking for subtext, the underbrush of shamanic worldview for example in Dana Stabenow or Tony Hillerman, the layers of life that go on below the surface plot. It's also something I find in Raymond Chandler, but most often in SF or fantasy, where such subtexts are often the driving force of the narrative. So I'll be looking for this novel.

Comment on the Warrior archetype. I like discovering another writer who realizes that being a soldier doesn't automatically make you a Warrior, and that many kinds of people are Warriors, sometimes in unique ways.

Ron Scheer said...

Just now getting around to reading this book. Skimmed your review and will read it word for word when I'm done with the book. Looks like I'm picking up on some of the same threads. I get many review copies of books, and they are not often as good as this one is so far. Though at page 125, it's still early days.

I read and review chiefly westerns and frontier fiction. This is something of a departure. I don't know the genre, but I'm guessing this one is an exception. The plot, such as it is, seems a device to let two guys speculate a lot about what's really going on.

Ron Scheer said...

My review of Gary Cook's novel is up today at