Book Review: The Pack / Author: Jason Starr / Publisher: Penguin Books / Release Date: Out Now
Simon Burns is a middling, unexceptional but enthusiastic and hard-working New York businessman whose life is turned upside-down when, entirely without warning, he’s dismissed from his job. His wife Alison becomes the family breadwinner as Simon is forced to become a house-husband, providing day care for their lively three year-old son Jeremy. It’s a frustrating new life for Simon but he’s determined to make it work. One day, at a local park, Simon strikes up a casual acquaintance with three unusual, distinctive men who quickly become his ’friends’ - and his life will never be the same again. This isn’t, you’ll be relieved to hear, the plot of some dreary American TV Movie of the Week or some drippy Mills & Boon; this is The Pack and it’s a tale of werewolves in modern-day Manhattan.
Thriller writer Jason Starr’s first sojourn into the world of the supernatural is a pacey, visceral page-turner, a vivid urban fantasy full of slow-burn brooding menace and richly-detailed characters. Starr slowly teases out the supernatural elements of his story; initially The Pack looks like little more than a cautionary tale about the stresses and strains of modern American life but things take a distinct turn for the unsettling when Simon finally makes contact with Charlie, Ramon and especially Michael - three very strange men with a very special bond. Settling into his new domestic routine Simon enjoys a night out with the boys - and wakes up naked and alone in a forest halfway across the state. Before long Simon is experiencing ferocious changes in his own personality; his senses and general fitness have improved, his sexual interest and stamina have multiplied and his whole attitude to life changes. But then come the terrible visions and flashbacks of a wild animal tearing a man to pieces - shortly followed by news of his former boss torn to shreds by what’s presumed to be a wolf - halfway across the State on the same night Simon woke up naked and out in the open.
Starr’s hugely-readable, easy style - the characters are genuinely believable if not hugely likable and the dialogue is slick and naturalistic - makes The Pack rattle along and once Simon makes contact with his new ‘friends’ the book starts to change gear as Simon’s personal stakes are suddenly raised. Before long his wife is questioning her husband’s faithfulness and ultimately his sanity as he begins to piece together the terrible truth about what’s happened to him - and the terrible fate which might await Manhattan if he doesn’t make a stand against Michael, the ice cold, charismatic ‘pack leader’.
Starr deftly juxtaposes The Pack’s predominant theme - the importance of family - by contrasting Simon and his nice, normal wife-and-kid life with the irresistible urge to become part of his new feral hunting family as he begins to change into something much stronger and more liberated than he’s ever been before. Simon himself is a bit of an everyman but the pack leader Michael - he’s strong, hypnotic, he speaks in bold, demanding statements - is a powerful, disturbing and dangerous figure. The Pack dispenses with much hoary old werewolf lore; no full moons or silver bullets here. Starr’s werewolves transform at will, at times of great excitement and they can only be killed by having their jaws literally ripped open.
The Pack is the first in a trilogy - The Craving is due out in the summer - and it’s a lively, vibrant if occasionally over-sexual novel (Starr’s obsession with sexual arousal gets a bit tiresome even if it’s fundamental to the development of the plot), its descriptions of New York vividly bring the city to life to the extent that it becomes a character in the novel in its own right. Best of all, there are no easy answers and plenty of loose ends to carry on into the next volume. The Pack is a cracking summer read.