‘The Wolf Gift’ review: Anne Rice teases, but payoff is slight

Tribune Newspapers

How’s your back feeling? Sore?

If you want a deep-tissue massage, forget the spa. What you need is a good bite from a werewolf.

As one discovers, in Anne Rice’s novel “The Wolf Gift,” the shift from human to wolf and back again is like a really sexy shiatsu session:

“He felt it … in the millions of hair follicles covering his body. And there was the sharp contraction in his stomach, not painful.... He staggered into the bedroom and fell across the bed. Deep orgasmic spasms ran through the muscles of his thighs and calves, through his back, his arms.”

After a long day at work, that sounds pretty good.

The werewolf change — in most movies and books — is usually presented as torture. It’s as if the person is strapped to an invisible, medieval rack and is slowly being pulled apart. But Anne Rice’s “The Wolf Gift” offers a sensually charged vision of this supernatural creature that, despite the book’s frequent silliness, still manages to tap into a key interest of Rice’s: The lives of outsiders.

Vampires fit this category — their blood lust and immortality push them beyond the human race that obsesses them — but they’re not the only ones. Many of Rice’s other works have examined the lives of people on the periphery of their societies: the castrati (“Cry to Heaven”), the quadroons and other mixed-race peoples of 19th century Louisiana (“The Feast of All Saints”), even Jesus struggling with the prophecy about him (the “Christ the Lord” series), to name a few.

Now enters “The Wolf Gift’s” Reuben Golding, and he easily falls into this company. In fact, Golding fits in well before his lupine transformation ever takes place.

Why? Because he’s a 23-year-old college grad. Like many kids fresh out of school, he has no sense of purpose, no direction. He doesn’t quite click with his girlfriend, a successful young attorney. He hasn’t locked into the marriage-family-career track that most of us take. He’s outside of it all, observing. What’s more: He comes from an affluent family and has a trust fund, enabling him to dabble in journalism and dream of adventure from the safety of the Golding enclave on Russian Hill in San Francisco.

Then he meets Marchent. She’s the beautiful niece of an archaeologist who vanished years before, leaving a secluded gothic mansion cluttered with treasures on the Mendocino coast. Marchent wants it sold, and Reuben interviews her there for an article for the San Francisco Observer.

In this long opening set piece, the two dine and we learn about Marchent’s family. Reuben is enchanted by this older woman. Before the night’s over, they’ll exchange more than stories over the dinner table — and there will be a tragedy, in which Reuben narrowly escapes with his life. This incident brings about the gift of the title.

The book’s first half, as Reuben slowly discovers what he has become, is cartoonish and familiar. What happens to Reuben happened way back in 1962 in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, the comic book in which a kid named Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider.

Reuben recovers from the ordeal with remarkable speed and realizes physical differences. His eyes are a deeper, darker blue now, he was a tall kid but he’s even taller now, his hearing is incredibly acute, and he feels no fear even staring a large, surly man in the face. Then, the wolf change happens, and Reuben is driven to hunt down evildoers of all stripes — abusive husbands, sadistic kidnappers — while the local media crackle with stories of a mysterious man-wolf who seems like a shaggy superhero.

It’s late in the second half — after a series of adventures, involving a wolf showdown and treacherous Russian doctors whose menacing presence never quite takes hold of the story — that hard-boiled Rice fans finally get a little of what they’ve been waiting for. A taste of the lore and mythical strangeness she is known for.

These qualities enter with the arrival of a splendid figure with “thick flowing short brown hair ... dressed almost too exquisitely in a superbly fitted brown suit ... a green jewel in his gold tie clasp, and a bit of a striped silk handkerchief ... just visible in his breast pocket.”

Soon Reuben receives answers, not to mention a glimpse of the distant origins of these wolves, also known as “morphenkinder.” It’s a tale of stolen knowledge, much like Eve biting into the apple in Eden or Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. Rice’s morphenkinder are noble killers, desiring only to “protect the victims of evil, to prevent them from being murdered or raped” — a far cry from the beast that Lon Chaney Jr., Benicio Del Toro and countless others have played.

Reuben learns how the transforming serum in a werewolf’s bite, which Rice calls Chrism, often fails to turn people into werewolves — and the same is true of “The Wolf Gift,” which delivers a far less potent bite than one expects. Rice does finally hit her unique, imaginative stride very late, but it will be a long wait for readers. For some, in fact, it will be much too long to wait.