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The Gist

Published in November 15, 2013, A Wolf in the Soul is a novel by Ira T. Berkowitz that explores identity and its relation to religion, and what it means to be a Jew, the nature of forgiveness and man's connection to the divine, finding how to still love amidst familial strife, and also werewolves.

Eighteen year old atheist Gavriel "Greg" Samstag is a recent graduate of a yeshiva high school and recent entrant to Colombia University. His father is a highly successful, highly charismatic self-made man. His mother is a former famous dancer and current granola-girl artiste, and his little sister is a charming kid who Greg adores. Greg himself is generally apathetic, not really caring for his "friends" or education, not putting too much effort into thinking about the future, and enjoying the kind of complacency that comes when nothing is significant enough to warrant attention.

However, things begin to go awry fairly quickly. His parents, who once loved each other but are now clearly incompatible, are teetering on the edge of divorce. His mother shows signs of narcissism and insists on drunkenly oversharing unhappy and deeply personal stories with a hapless and helpless Greg, his father tries desperately to keep his mother happy, but only makes things worse before retreating entirely, and both Greg and his sister suffer from the emotional turmoil the poisoned relationship is inflicting upon them.

On top of that, while he's at college, random dogs begin reacting oddly to him. Some follow him around and bring him dead animals. Others growl and try to attack him. Often, he swears he hears growling, even when no animals are nearby. And then he begins having vivid dreams of living the life of a wolf, from puppy to adulthood, dreams that start to happen during waking hours. And why does raw meat suddenly sound so appealing . . .?

Thoughts

Despite the impression that the opening paragraph of Greg hunting down a goose in wolf form might give you, the true werewolf portion of the story doesn't begin until two thirds of the way through the novel. Instead, the book is focused more on the rocky relationship between Greg and his family, as well as his own tumultuous relationship with religion and his Jewish identity.

And this book feels super Jewish. It feels weird to say that, but through Greg we are exposed to one person's intimate exploration on the nature of identity and religion, with Greg ultimately giving up his atheism/agnosticism and adopting Orthodoxy. The entire middle third of the book takes place in Israel as Greg joins a yeshiva led by Hakham Dawid Azulai, an infinitely patient and understanding man who, along with his wife, come to represent the sort of loving familial/domestic relationship Greg doesn't have at home. There's a shitton of Yiddish and Hebrew words tossed around, and though most of it is accessible through context and the narration, some of it does require a quick google search. And there is a lot of talk in the middle of the book about religion and the nature of Man and the Divine and the Animal, and a big part of Greg actually getting help with his wolf problem is getting him to accept-- not just cognitively, but really deep down-- that though he is having fun being the wolf, he's finding joy in the opposite direction (going down towards the animal, instead of upwards toward God).

Because Greg really really enjoys being connected to the wolf. Part of his baggage is that in high school, he was often read as an effeminate guy; Greg is big and tough looking at first, but he's got the same dancer's grace as his mother, and he's on the sensitive side, so after actually watching him move around, people made jokes. The wolf, by contrast, is a huge, hulking, super strong, very wild, definitely-very-manly creature, and when he isn't freaking out about how crazy life has become, Greg genuinely is pleased to be connected to it.

One of the interesting things about the book is how kind of unlikable Greg is. The novel is, essentially, a redemption story for Greg; he starts off kind of awful and gets better, never so unsympathetic that the reader abandons him entirely, but still having moments of absolute snottiness. However, though he has changed by the end of the book, Greg is still kind of a jerk. The narration acknowledges this, and it is essentially tied in with the message that people are continually striving for improvement, and that though Greg has gotten over this series of problems, he will need to (and he intends to) continue growing and changing his behavior. As to which bits about him, specifically, might irritate the reader is up for grabs. He starts off a pretty pretentious kid, and he's shitty to his only friends, first Joey Tawil from high school, then Aram and Kyle in college. It's not until later in the novel, after meeting Hakham Dawid and the others in Israel, that Greg realizes how much of a heel he's been and starts trying to be better, just in time for Joey to re-enter the story.

The book isn't told in direct chronological order. It starts off with an in medias res style "I bet you're wondering how we got here!" flashback, but then continues to jump back and forth in the timeline, bouncing from high school to college to high school to college to Israel to high school to Israel six-weeks-later, until we finally catch up with Greg chasing the goose in the opening paragraph.

And I will admit, the ending left me wanting. Some things intentionally remain a mystery, with characters pointing out how we'll never know the truth, and that's perfectly fine. In a supernatural story, not everything needs to be solved.

However, other things feel like dropped plot threads. Characters are introduced and feel like they ought to be important, but then never show up again. Things that ought to have consequences don't, while characters worry about consequences for things that ought to be insignificant.

All in all, I do recommend the book, but not if you want a spooky scary werewolf story. This is definitely more of a coming-of-age, personal-introspective, questioning-the-nature-of-God-and-Man story with a side of werewolf thrown in.

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