Reviewed by R.T. Smith
Urban Waite’s third novel, a crime thriller set in the small towns and woodlands of Washington State, unfolds the tale of a young sheriff’s deputy with a saddened and shaky marriage, a past damaged by the loss of his mother to illness and his former-sheriff father to crime and prison, as well as an uncertainty about his own vocation. Along his journey to answer the questions of the past and future and the ordeal of coping with his newly-paroled father’s return to Silver Lake, Bobby Drake must contend with a sour bulldog of a DEA agent, shifty local lawmen and a pair of obsessed escaped cons who have a huge financial stake in the shadowy movements of Patrick Drake and what he might have salvaged from the drug smuggling spree that put him behind bars before the complexities of Sometimes the Wolf are launched into action.
The storm of the novel gathers slowly, delayed by a kind of double McGuffin – first, in the figure of a lone she-wolf that has shown up to attack livestock, and then as an attractive Fish and Wildlife Management officer named Ellie, whose job it is to band and observe the wild intruder. Unfortunately, the wolf disappears even as a metaphor for two-thirds of the book and remains more an artificial frame and a vague emblem for the father, who is also a free-ranger, and intimations of more than flirting between the deputy and the conservation worker are misleading.
However, the book’s inexorable plot is driven as much by the conviction of agent Driscoll (a standard but well-drawn shabby obsessive cop) that the former sheriff has stashed substantial illicit funds in the wilderness, and the ruthless pursuit of that swag by two near-Pinteresque villains, Bean and John Wesley (a name somewhat distracting, whether derived from Methodism, Wild West stories or Flannery O’Connor). These two all-purpose villains are almost pure appetite, but lack the charm of even the most savage predator. Not at all in the mold of, for instance, McCarthy’s Chigruh, Bean is the nearly uncaused cause, whose blend of motivated and random venom seems to come from no complexity, and his sidekick is a step behind, more aware perhaps that the victims are people, but he’s less developed. Despite their schematic construction and viable but predictable dialogue, Waite has mapped out their bloody trail through the novel so they can surprise and alarm the reader with their sudden appearances and resourcefulness. “Serviceable villains,” they provide the narrative with a necessary hostage-pursuit-revenge-rancor, while those who are busy negotiating and equivocating their lives on the threshold of the law furnish the more engaging dynamic of the story.
At its best, Sometimes a Wolf is an exploration of fathers and sons – the tentative deputy Bobby and his adroit but misguided father, the deputy’s miscarried son, Patrick Drake’s own father, a likeable loner who lives off the grid but emerges to play an important role in the unpacking of the central conundrum, which is: “Where’s the hidden money, who’s it meant for and who’s going to get it?”
The women in the story – Ellie, Bobby’s wife Sherri, the waitress Cheryl – have similar names which even scan identically, and they serve stock purposes, though the wife’s suffering is no dismissable matter, as she is abducted, abused and terrified in well-rendered riveting fashion. Other flawed characters include the current and anything-but-innocent Sheriff Gary and his henchmen and the noble but earthy ex-con Maurice. Assorted waitresses and quick victims come and go, but the swirl of uncertainty about who is operating at what relation to the spirit of the law provides the story with its moral twists and thresholds. That and the question of forgiveness, even when the offense is great and the offender a blood relation.
The early intimations of an environmental dimension don’t bear the anticipated fruit, as ecological concern vanishes in the whirlwind of violence, and the wilderness hovers and simmers without coming excitingly alive. The plot includes just enough sexual tension and action to ensure that dimension of life is not overlooked, and the topography is revealed, though not animated, as in the works of similar writers Ron Rash and Tom Franklin. The back matter of the paperback version suggests other comparisons, but Waite’s style lacks the blistering imagery and philosophical reach of McCarthy, the persuasive rawness of Elmore Leonard and the tortured motivations of Dennis Lehane’s principals.
What might raise this story from the readable to the gripping and consequential account that a less brisk book might have aimed for is a more committed exploration of Bobby’s backstory and its haunting particulars. The events of the past are told, but their transforming impact on the protagonist is often too pat to make him unforgettable. His remorse and doubt are believable but not adequate to show his heart or what he sees when he looks into the mirror.
Waite’s dialogue is usually credible but lacks the brittle wit of veteran law enforcement officers, and the author’s commitment to writing in long sentence fragments (though sometimes adding to the pace) can be irritating and never quite succeeds in converting a manner to a captivating style. Some sudden shifts in point of view lead the reader less artfully than might be hoped, and the early gaffe of repeated information about twelve-year-old clothing suggests this novel might have been more carefully edited. However, Waite can write, and when he is not impatient and trusts his eye, his management of action is pace-perfect.
The themes and setting, general arc or uncertain evidence and solution, mystery and resolution are rewarding, and with the opening scenes of the savaged calf and concern about the packless wolf, expectations rise. If they culminate in a nearly formulaic fashion when Bobby Drake sees his father literally more clearly than before and perhaps understands his responsibilities about that seeing for the first time, it’s a close miss. The novel is neither sluggish or timid, and Waite has most of the tools to compose a more refined and fiercely realized novel. It would be a mistake to give up on him on the basis of Sometimes the Wolf.