[This is part of a longer essay by Cullen Gallagher on 2011 crime fiction.]
JASON STARR IS BEST KNOWN for Jim Thompson-esque crime novels like Fake I.D. and sharp social satire-cum-thrillers like The Follower, as well as his expert evocations of New York City’s neighborhoods. After dipping his feet into fantasy and horror with the 2010 graphic novel The Chill, Starr now plunges headfirst into the supernatural. His latest novel, The Pack, is the story of Simon Burns, an advertising executive who falls victim to the recession. Laid off from his job, he becomes a stay-at-home dad while his wife goes off to work. A chance meeting with a group of other dads at the playground, however, turns Simon’s world upside down. After a night of drinking, Simon wakes up in the woods, naked and recalling dreams of werewolves. But when his body starts to undergo a radical transformation, he starts to wonder if those were really dreams.
Before you accuse Jason Starr of joining Team Jacob, be warned: this isn’t a typical “werewolf” narrative. In fact, it’s actually closer in tone to Starr’s Panic Attack (which was recently optioned by David Fincher’s production company). Published in 2009, Panic Attack was about a Forest Hills family that falls apart after the father (Adam Bloom) kills an intruder. Both The Pack and Panic Attack are primarily concerned with the fragility of the modern American family. Simon’s and Adam’s families are, at least temporarily, wealthy enough to maintain the façade of contentment, but a sudden change of fortune brings repressed violence to the surface. Panic Attack, with its cozy Forest Hills setting, doesn’t yet show the full effects of the current recession, while The Pack clearly shows the anxieties of an unstable and tenuous economy. The respective patriarchs temporarily gain control over their worlds through violence — Adam with a gun, and Simon through his werewolf super-strength — but this newfound authority ultimately undermines their relationships, leaving them powerless and alone.
Werewolves aside, The Pack is one of Starr’s most realistic and relatable novels yet. In the past, he has excelled at exploring the latent criminality in everyday protagonists and familiar situations, but here he uncovers a savagery that is both sympathetic and uncomfortably appealing. Simon stands on the verge of solving all his problems, only to realize that the rifts in his family and the emptiness of his life are much deeper than he suspected.