‘Wolves’ stops working despite early promise

"The Work of Wolves," Kent Meyers' new novel about the lives of small town South Dakotans and the events that bring them together, makes an effort to be memorable by making judicious use of common literary devices and creating detailed, engaging characters. In the end, however, it accomplishes neither of the attempts and falls considerably short of its goal.

The story takes place in the fictional town of Twisted Tree, S.D., a windswept nowhere where every resident seems to live in perpetual emotional twilight. First there's Carson Fielding, a monosyllabic but extremely gifted horse trainer. The death of his grandfather early in the novel haunts Carson and puts him in an emotional deep freeze, making him a cold and distant figure even to his parents, who mask their gnawing desire to understand him better with a thin veneer of everyday domesticity.

Despite his stunted social skills, Carson is pulled, almost against his will, into a surprisingly platonic affair with Rebecca Yarborough, the trophy wife of the richest rancher this side of Ted Turner.

Then there's Earl Walks Alone, a shy and introverted Native American who lives in a household still held in the hush of mourning for his long-deceased father.

Finally, there is Willi Schubert, a sorrowful German foreign exchange student trying simultaneously to escape and come to grips with the skeletons hanging in his ancestral closet.

The novel begins promisingly when it switches back and forth between the stories of Carson and Earl. Meyers skillfully uses the opposing storylines to illustrate that Carson, who is white, and Earl, who is Native American, live worlds apart because of their ethnicity even though they only live on opposite sides of Twisted Tree.

The introduction of Rebecca, however, soon turns Carson's half of the story into a gooey romance yarn not fit for even the sappiest of Lifetime movies. Earl and Willi's half of the story suffers by association when Meyers begins to plait the two plotlines together.

Part-western, part-grocery store romance novel, "Wolves" appears to want the best of both literary genres. Instead, it gets the shortcomings of each.

The plot of "Wolves" would be enough to fuel a good short story — Meyers has written more short stories than books, so that is presumably where his forte lies — but is simply too thin to be spread out over a 405-page book. Hence, the novel relies heavily on its characters for impact. Cumulatively, they just don't provide enough steam to keep the story going at even a coast for very long. As a result, the book suffers from periodic dull spells and a high number of rather meaningless scenes.

In addition to failing to find a foundation for his novel, Meyers is also guilty of abusing metaphorical devices. In a story set in the western Plains, it makes sense to assign meaning to some things; a hawk motionless in the sky, for instance, or the sigh of the wind through the grass. But when Earl starts to read into the lines on his graphing calculator, it is apparent that Meyers doesn't know when to stop making use of a once-good thing.

Not that "Wolves" doesn't have its high points. The characters of Earl and Willi are poignant throughout most of the novel, and Meyers' gift for recreating the harsh and lonely beauty of the wind-scoured South Dakota Badlands is matched by few writers today.

Grade: C

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Dec. 2 2004.