OCTOBER 23, 2014
WILLIAM GIRALDI ought to be cloned. In a literary world that grows more hermetic and enfeebled by the year, shutting itself like a clam against the turbulent waters of the wider culture, Giraldi can count himself among a dauntless few who still cling to what increasingly feels like a hopeless, romantic notion: that language not only matters, but is worth (metaphorical) bloodletting.
Author of the novels Busy Monsters and the new, utterly brilliant Hold the Dark, Giraldi up until now was probably best known for his withering takedown of two books by Alix Ohlin in the New York Times Book Review two years ago. Taking issue primarily with what he saw as Ohlin’s haphazard and lazy prose, Giraldi’s review admittedly has a condescending swagger that in today’s defanged critical environment can be read as mean-spirited, the literary equivalent of a cornerback high-stepping it to the end zone after intercepting a pass. But, especially since Ohlin was vigorously praised almost everywhere else, it stirred the pot, something that is in far too short supply in literary criticism nowadays.
By penning the review, though, Giraldi set himself a very high bar to hurdle. That Hold the Dark is an astonishingly well-written piece of fiction doesn’t come as much of a surprise, as Busy Monsters had already laid testament to Giraldi’s gifts as a stylist. What comes as a shock, however, particularly in light of Busy Monsters, which felt like a wobbly solar system of stories orbiting an unstable star at the core, is how gripping and narratively satisfying the novel proves to be. Hold the Dark is that rarest of literary beasts: a novel whose sentences gleam like gemstones but whose pages carry you along like a bullet train.
A bleak, brutal tale of violence and alienation amid unforgiving wilderness, Hold the Dark opens with three children being taken by wolves in the far-flung Alaskan village of Keelut, an arctic hovel on the edge of the Alaskan bush whose inhabitants don’t take kindly to outsiders. The third child taken is the six-year-old son of Vernon and Medora Slone, who have lived in the village all their lives. With Vernon off fighting in Iraq, Medora writes a letter to Russell Core, a nature writer, asking his help in getting back “her boy’s bones and maybe slaughter the wolf that took him.” Trudging in the snow-covered landscape around Keelut, Core soon finds that there is much more lurking beneath the surface than a simple wolf abduction. When Vernon returns home from war to find his son (and wife) missing, he and his childhood friend Cheeon begin a deadly journey across the frozen landscape.
I’ll leave the plot summary at that, since one of the joys of Giraldi’s novel is how suspensefully and intricately he’s spun his narrative. More than a few thriller writers would do well to take note how Giraldi manages his pacing and fashions his twists. From chapter to chapter, scene to scene, Hold the Dark never bogs down in the unnecessary or overripe, each episode hewn down to its icy core. Like the wolves that remain a central focus, Dark possesses a feral tautness that is extremely rare for a novel so besotted with language.
About that language. The metaphors — a burned child’s feet are “fashioned from candle wax” — and gnomic pronouncements — “The dead don’t haunt the living. The living haunt themselves” — demonstrate perfect control over tone, bringing to mind stylists like Cormac McCarthy, James Salter, and Thomas McGuane. Like those writers, he has an innate feel for abbreviation and expansion, ensuring that while the language may shimmer, only rarely does it impose. Unlike so much MFA workshop–style prose — the precise noun-to-verb-ization, the sentences and metaphors that contort themselves into skeins of incomprehension, the prettified landscape descriptions that grind the story to a halt — Giraldi is aware that there is no more important tool in the stylist’s kit than brevity. While he does occasionally overreach — “All myths are true. Every one is the only truth we have” — these errors are limited to about a dozen, an astonishingly low number for anyone trying to perform consistently in this register.
Hold the Dark is an uncompromising book. In its language. In its outlook. In its journey. Like the predators that lurk among the ridgelines in the mountains around Keelut, the novel has stalked my thoughts since I turned its last page. Giraldi has proven himself a wolf among sheep. I can only hope Hollywood gets its paws on this book. Not only is the story built for the screen, but it would boost Giraldi’s audience to the size he deserves.