Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"The Pack" by Jason Starr-- Not What I Had Hoped For

Simon Burns is your typical beta male. He goes to work but can't climb the corporate ladder because he lacks the requisite ambition and willingness to resort to cut-throat office politics, yet he is still shocked when he is unexpectedly fired. A bad economy soon forces Simon into making an unconventional decision and he ends up as a stay-at-home dad to his three-year-old son Jeremy. It's a tough adjustment and when Simon runs into another group of dads at the playground he's relieved to find a group of guys who seem to understand his situation.

His new friends are a close-knit group that possess an eerie physicality, but Simon brushes off their oddness in his desire to find a comfortable niche in his new life. He soon progresses from playdates at the park to nights out with the guys- but when Simon wakes up in the middle of the woods with no memory of the previous night, blood on his clothes and a sudden strange craving for meat, he begins to realize that his new friends aren't exactly what they seem to be.

When I was first offered "The Pack" for review I was drawn to the differences in the concept of the werewolf story. Who wants the same old thing with all the were-themed fiction out there? But the promise of flip-flopped gender roles and the pull of a charismatic pack leader ended up being only a small part of the narrative as the execution gets bogged down in mundane repetition and discombobulated characterizations.

The difficulty I had in reading "The Pack" primarily came from a feeling that nothing had a natural flow to it. When we're confronted with strange situations most people have a native wariness. We might talk ourselves out of paying attention to our gut reactions, but not until we've run through some rationalizations first. But the characters in "The Pack" have a shared tendency to disregard frightening circumstances and leap into things when they should run in the other direction. To explain this behavior we're told that the would-be leader of The Pack, Michael, is an unusually charismatic guy. That he has the ability to overwhelm with his presence and make people trust him. The problem with that description is that he is never written in a way that makes this believable. Michael really just comes off as odd and I could never suspend disbelief enough to go along with the idea that people would do what he wants so easily.

And the disjointed feeling carries over into the most pedestrian aspects of the story. Simon doesn't have to go through any kind of initiation into the pack-- he's basically accepted on sight and brought into the fold for no other reason than he's a stay-at-home dad. His odd behavior does cause his wife some alarm, but her reactions are all over the place. She runs an emotional obstacle course that goes from accusing Simon of having an affair to being gay and even fears Simon will hurt Jeremy at one point. But when it becomes convenient to the narrative for her and Simon to be together, she goes through a massive change of demeanor and decides everything is fine. I couldn't decide if the author thought all women were that wishy-washy, or if that was particular to this story. But the only other female characters aren't given more credit for being perceptive- or sane- so I didn't love the way women were treated in the book.

Not to nit-pick this book to death, but I also have to mention that for a thriller "The Pack" spends a lot of time on not-so-thrilling minutia. Much of Simon's day, after being essentially turned into a werewolf, revolves around eating meat, running laps and doing push-ups to burn off his new-found energy or taking his son to the park. There are a few glimmers of what the book could be when Simon interacts with his former co-workers but it never finds its potential. It feels like more time is spent describing the changes in Simon's eating habits than showing the fear and anger that should accompany such a life-altering situation.

I wanted to like "The Pack" because I think it has such a good premise. Starr touches on the idea that women like passive men on an intellectual level, but respond to the alpha male on an instinctive level. The conundrum of having Simon being financially passive while physically aggressive is something I wish had been explored more. I also think Michael could have been developed in a much more convincing manner and I was disappointed that *the pack* that is the central idea of the book was more of a concept that a well fleshed-out part of the story. In the end I felt like "The Pack" was a collection of good ideas that needed refining.


Hannah said...

It's really weird, but despite enjoying The Pack myself, I agree with you wholeheartedly. By the end of the novel, something felt as though it was missing. The thing that kept it an enjoyable read for me was the way in which it was written. That was enough for me, but I know for others, including yourself, it wasn't. It definitely didn't feel like a thriller, but I was okay with how it turned out, personally.

Theresa Lucas said...

I can understand where you're coming from. There were times when I enjoyed the book, but overall it didn't work for me.