REVIEW: “Dire Wolf” by Michael J. DeLuca

Review of Michael J. DeLuca, “Dire Wolf,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #234, September 14, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

In a world resembling the United States circa Prohibition—judging from the prevalence of logging/trapping, the stark disconnect between city and “wilderness,” and the mention of a speakeasy—a man named Staggerlee is always on the lookout for a fight. One day, trouble finds him in the form of a massive wolf, and a beautiful woman from his past…

Brimming with authentic sensory detail, “Dire Wolf” thoroughly embraces the grit, dirt, and violence that defines protagonist Staggerlee’s existence. He is an exile from “the city,” a wanderer whose many regrets lead him to drink profusely and go toe-to-toe with anyone who might be willing. Unfortunately, these regrets are kept vague—the few hints afforded us do little to flesh out a satisfactory backstory for Staggerlee. I personally conjured the image of the brooding “hero” from one of the old westerns that helped my father start learning English as a child in Japan; the same ones he sometimes still watches, basking in the glow of nostalgia. But like many of those characters, there is a sense that Staggerlee’s foundations are firmly grounded in toxic masculinity. After all, the first thing we learn about him is that he feels compelled to react with physical displays and self-destructive behavior. I feel like this could have been an interesting angle, but it seems to have been played straight, with Staggerlee being “the baddest mother around.” (Incidentally, this is given as one of the reasons he is “exiled” from the city).

The women play secondary roles, though it’s obvious that Delia—a beautiful former singer from one of the city’s speakeasies—is one of Staggerlee’s regrets. Why? He loved her. It’s also explained in a few brief lines that a certain woman (or girl?) “froze to death,” and for this, Delia desires revenge. She now hunts him with a massive, man-eating she-wolf in tow (a little on the nose thematically, but it’s the primary speculative element). If we fully accept that this wolf is a metaphor for Staggerlee’s desired death, the ending becomes much more interesting; even if it does, however, I’m not sure it really changes anything for Staggerlee.

And this then is the sense I take away from “Dire Wolf”—for all its action, we never learn enough, about the world or its characters. To end on a positive note, while I may not be the ideal audience for this type of story, I appreciate the many technical merits of the prose. I was particularly impressed with how grounded I felt in the action.