Review by Lydia Melby
“When the hail came, when the river bucked and broke its banks, when the children lay awake in the late hours fevered and coughing—they knew this place belonged to the devil, had always belonged to him.”
Thomas Maltman’s second novel, Little Wolves, a 2013 Indie Next pick, has been called a literary thriller, a poetic mystery, called gothic and mythic and haunting. It is a book that defies attempts to assign it a genre, category, or explanation. It is a book that bewilders and excites, moves and mystifies.
Little Wolves takes it’s title from an old Cheyenne (and other American Indian nations) term for coyotes. While this isn’t a common name for Canis Latrans in most rural Minnesota communities, the setting of this novel, a small town “about 200 miles west of the Twin Cities” called Lone Mountain, occupies a realm of the surreal and fantastic, where American Indian, Anglo-Saxon, and biblical mythologies wage war, and where coyotes play their little part in other “wolves’” lives. While it’s a “pretty enough town at first glance,” with “women sweeping their porches, the men cutting precise patterns on riding lawnmowers,” a town with church luncheons and lock-ins and an annual Longfellow pageant, Lone Mountain is also a place where it’s inhabitants talk frankly of the devil’s threat, where lone billboards command Thou Shalt Not Kill “in stark black and white” and where residents are still counted strangers twenty=five years after their move.
Little Wolves opens in the hours after a troubled teenage boy methodically sawed the barrel off his new shotgun, “limped into town” and shot the town sheriff in the face before committing suicide in a cornfield. The story follows the effects this tragedy has on the boy’s father, Grizz, and Clara, an expecting mother who recently moved to Lone Mountain with her pastor husband and taught Seth’s high school English class.
As Grizz tries to understand how he seemingly knew so little about his son, the boy who saved and raised orphaned coyote pups, Clara tries to come to terms with her own family troubles—a barely-remembered mother, who died under mysterious circumstances, an overbearing father who mythologized her mother’s death with adjusted folklore and legends, and a distant husband preoccupied with his work and ambivalent about their coming child. And as both grope for understanding, they find instead more questions and dark hints, signs for those who would see, that Lone Mountain shelters secrets more vicious than their legends.
In its best moments, Little Wolves is remarkable, a starkly hewn northern gothic in the vein of McCarthy or O’Connor’s southern standards of the genre. Maltman’s prose, especially when describing the desolate prairie in drought or in winter or when suggesting the presence of the Other, a hovering sensation of a figure standing behind you in the dark, that ungrounding when you realize no one is who you thought.
In Lone Mountain, Maltman brings together several very real threats—a violent outburst, menacing authorities, stone-faced secrets, drought, modernization, even the coming winter. The story takes off with the first two jarring, gripping chapters, and as the tension piles on, the reader’s flush of adrenaline seems a natural and necessary reaction.
Atop this gritty realism are many layers of the supernatural—Clara’s obsession with Anglo-Saxon mythology, and her belief that both the legend of Beowulf and of her missing mother hold the key to some great mystery, collides with her husband’s (and the community’s) fear of Satan and God’s wrath and Grizz’s lifelong fixation on the Hiawatha lore. Admittedly, these elements are heavy doses taken all together, but Maltman uses these devices to sketch what his expert tone has already implied—a pervading darkness hovering over the town, seeping in at the edges of everyone’s vision but impossible to face head on.
With Little Wolves, Maltman weaves a beautiful, bewildering cloth. His plot, which begins anchored in the gritty realism he does so well, becomes slightly unmoored by its own fantasy as the many loosely knotted narrative threads twist into something vague and inscrutable. However, the characters, though often baffling in interaction and motivation, are sympathetic and genuine, while the suspense and eerie atmosphere certainly earns Little Wolves its loose ends and indulgences.
Ultimately, the considerable strength of Little Wolves lays in how deftly the author evokes his lovely, unsettling landscape—dropping readers into a scene, a fear, a town, a way of life. Even as the plot grows chaotic, Maltman’s prose does not falter—many passages caught my breath and brought me back to reread and savor, like the passage below, as Grizz broods over a rifle, “a cold deadweight… the farm boys in this stretch of country grew up with.”
“They became teenagers who shot at street signs from moving cars or shot loads of buckshot straight up in the sky and then scurried for cover before the deadly lead rained down. They grew up and the guns grew with them. A .410 could take down a coon or even a small deer at close range; a 20 gauge could pluck a fleeing pheasant or goose from the blue. Shot or slug, steel or lead, they could cite velocities and tell stories of the improbably kill or the one that got away. They ate what they killed, mostly, but sometimes they killed out of boredom… kills they later regretted but could not undo.”
This moment, eerily relevant today, is just one of many that echo in the reader’s skull. And that, perhaps, is the mark of a fine novel—not the number of loose threads or missing answers, but rather something that strikes deep enough that we care enough to circle these stranded questions hours, days, even weeks after we have closed the book.