I’m here to tell you that Jason Starr does not write fiction. He writes documentaries. I’m not quite sure how he does that, but if you put a gun to my head and force me to hazard a guess, I would say that he picks an interesting-looking lowlife and begins following him around, taking notes and reading his mind. After a few days, he has all the research he needs to write another masterpiece like COLD CALLER or FAKE I.D., or, what had been my favorite of his novels, LIGHTS OUT. I say “had been” because THE PACK, his new book, has supplanted my affections. There may be better books released this year, but this is the one I love the most thus far.
"You won’t just love this book; you need this book. And I need the sequel --- the sooner the better."
When I first heard the plot, I honestly wasn’t sure it would work. My understanding was that Starr was working on a book dealing with a stay-at-home dad who encounters a group of werewolves in Brooklyn. His previous work did not stray into the fanciful; indeed, the only element of his novels that could be considered supernatural was their quality. Accordingly, I picked up THE PACK and cracked the binding with some trepidation. I didn’t put the book down until some several hours later after I finished reading the last page --- transported, stunned, riveted, and hoping that the second installment will be out next week. Starr does nothing less than to take the lycanthropic legend, transport it to the canyons of Manhattan and the streets of Brooklyn, and make it plausible. Actually, that’s wrong. He makes it real.
The protagonist is not one of Starr’s usual noir Brooklyn denizens. As he did in PANIC ATTACK, Starr takes a guy who is a bit more upscale and gives him the spotlight. As one might expect, however, all sorts of nasty things begin to happen to him --- “him” being Simon Burns, a 30-something account manager at an advertising agency who feels that the senior position promotion that is about to be announced is his to lose. What Burns loses, though, is not only the promotion but also his job, when he is unexpectedly fired without advance warning. Alison, Simon’s wife, has a good job, but they still need to cut corners. Even before the firing took place, things were not so wonderful at home. Alison and Simon were waking up their son Jeremy, the three-year-old antichrist, by making with the rickety-ricketys each evening, if you get my drift. They accordingly give their nanny the heave-ho, and Simon becomes the caregiver.
One of the high points of THE PACK is Starr’s description of Simon’s first day on that job. I don’t think I’ve read a more perfect piece of prose in quite a while. Simon is giving serious thought to hanging himself when he meets a similar group of dads at Battery Park, a trio who seem to have bonded maybe a little too closely but seem just fine otherwise. They invite Simon to join them for an evening out, at which time he is given a taste of a special brew. The next thing he knows, he is waking up naked in the middle of a field in northern New Jersey, covered in blood, and his former boss --- the guy who fired him --- is dead.
Simon has changed. Never exactly a jock, his strength is increased, his reflexes are faster, his endurance is greater, and his sex drive is…well, let’s just say his marriage improves. For a while. But Simon is different. He is more like his new friends, who are unlike everyone else. He has no idea how different he really is, or how different he is about to become. Not until it is way too late, anyhow. And he discovers how much he likes it.
I haven’t even touched on my favorite element of the novel. Let’s just say that it’s a parable, a metaphor for our times, a snapshot of reality told in the form of fiction. I can think of at least one special interest group that will get their Victoria’s Secrets all in a nattering twist over THE PACK. I hope they do so that people will buy copies by the truckload (or the Kindle-load) and read it. You won’t just love this book; you need this book. And I need the sequel --- the sooner the better.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 4, 2011