I can’t think of another book that is more timely and relevant to the world we live in at this precise moment—the post-September 11th, post-Boston Marathon bombing landscape of heightened xenophobia and security—than Red Moon. Like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Red Moon speaks to us right out of the headlines, the perpetual CNN and Fox News scroll that is the absurdly real backdrop of our lives.
“Isn’t Red Moon a werewolf book?” you ask, “What could have less verisimilutude than fantasy?”
It’s more than a werewolf book. True, the central conflict is between lycans (who are like werewolves except they can choose whether to transform and when) and non-lycans. But you can substitute the word “lycan” with the names of so many oppressed groups. In some parts of the book, you can substitute “Muslim.” In others, illegal immigrants. Homosexuals. Transexuals. Holocaust-era Jews. Jim Crow-era blacks. Palestinians. Iraqis under American occupation. People with AIDS. With disabilities. Anyone who’s ever been discriminated against or felt pushed to the fringes of society.
You can substitute the Lycan Republic for Iraq. Chase, the politician in the book, for George W. Bush. The Resistance (the lycan guerillas) for Al Quaeda. Anti-lycan rhetoric for anti-Muslim hate talk. Torture of the lycan Resistance leader to “enhanced interrogation” at Guantanamo. Anti-lycan skinheads for the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
These substitutions occur effortlessly while we read. The book isn’t a Civics textbook but a fast-paced fable about the real world, which begins with a terrorist attack on an airplane, continues with heart-thumping chase scenes and quests, and ends with an even bigger bang. Percy is a master of momentum (see, for instance, his craft essays on this subject). He creates suspense by alternating points of view, following each main character, one at a time, until their stories converge and grow, exponentially, in power.
The action as well as the frisson of sex and carnality keeps us turning the pages. Chase, the corrupt politician, is the kind of guy who “flips the channels on the flat-screen with a cold Coors resting against his crotch.” and who eats sushi off the naked bodies of Japanese women working at restaurants. He is an anti-lycan crusader whose persona is that he is “real people” though we know he is the true animal.
The book is so multi-layered, offering chapters with points of view from wildly different types of characters, that it feels epic. For instance, Claire’s struggle over whether to embrace her lycan status as a trait rather than a disease, a feature not a bug, reminds me of the debate in Deaf culture over whether to give children who can’t hear cochlear implants and the question about whether deafness is a problem that needs to be solved or just a feature of people who are different but equal.
I’m not usually a fan of the supernatural in fiction, so it is a testament to Percy’s enormous skill that he has won over a skeptical reader like me. Part of the reason is the muscular prose and evocative, surprising imagery. A rucksack is “swollen and green” like “an enormous gut sack pulled from a deer carcass.” The landscape is alive with menace, full of “the white trunks of cottonwoods like bony teeth grinning across the glass.” Percy animates the inanimate world, as Patrick “turtles” the bag, Miriam “crabs her hand across the coffee table,” and the sound of footsteps is the wood’s “complaint.”
The prose style and themes in this book remind me of what I liked so much about The Wilding. Percy’s first novel explores what it means to be a man, the power to kill and how easily it is abused, the thrill of the hunt, what happens when the hunter becomes the hunted, how war and other violence can turn us into beasts, hubris and its punishment, and, most of all, how being human means having a divided self.
Percy has written a partisan novel, by which I mean he takes a moral and politican stand. That’s a brave thing for a writer to do, especially if he wants a large audience. Like John Irving, one of Percy’s literary heroes, he has no tolerance for intolerance. His book is deeply political, using one element that doesn’t exist to stand in for so much that does.
Red Moon reminds me of the times I have felt most like a lycan. As a student at an Ivy League university, trying to hide from my privileged peers the fact that I didn’t have enough money to buy a cup of coffee, that my family was working class. As a misunderstood artist (Don’t we all, whatever kind of artist we are, feel that way sometimes?). As a woman in a man’s world. As a foreigner now, stumbling over my verb tenses and noun genders, as I try to negotiate life as an American in Paris.
I am a lycan. You are too, probably. At least that’s how you’ll feel after reading Red Moon. If you’ve ever experienced bias or discrimination, if you’ve been left out and marginalized, you will find your senses abruptly heightened, your sense of smell and taste and animal instinct suddenly even sharper than your sight. Red Moon will get under your skin. Or maybe your fur.