In Douglas A. Martin’s Wolf, two pre-teen brothers beat their father to death in the glow of his TV set and light his rented house on fire. They fade into the woods for hours until “the friend” comes through and stuffs them, naked, blood-sticky, and copper-smelling, into his trunk. The novel climaxes with this violence, but—despite the youths’ best expectations—that’s not how this anti-true crime story resolves. Martin doesn’t ask the obvious questions: how could this evil murder happen, and who could be so monstrous? Instead, he dissolves these questions—which, let’s face it, we can’t help but bring along—into the enmeshed subjectivities and overriding empathies that form the architecture of his slender book. In the end, it’s less about the boys and what they did than it is about you and what you might have done. The question is, if you knew that “if just this one thing was done everything would change,” would you do it? How bad would your everything have to be?
For the brothers, their everything is nothing. They’re twelve and thirteen years old, and their father has shrink-wrapped them up in his myopic vision. He’s their one thing, and they make their choice. The older boy swings the bat. He:
Swung harder, muscles not feeling a thing, adjusted his stance striking against the hole again deepening wet sounds he plants, slapped up and down unstuck. Some sprayed over onto the lamp, high up in places as the ceiling, then the floor wet, behind the chair it patters and pools but nobody gets a chance to look there, the pile soaked through from brown to black gone everywhere sprayed out the cave used to see, the older keeps hitting him or he’ll come after them, some more slipped before the face broke there, next to scalp, nose tore open, chest bruised along neck, sounds like a wolf crying.
The phrase, “the cave used to see,” threw me at first. Martin’s prose is full of such back-alleys and sub-basements, sudden hinges and shadows hiding from the light. Meaning is felt for, groped for in the dark. “The cave used to see” called me off to someplace else, a prehistoric, mythological place, and as the cadence of the sentence unspooled into excess—the boy all the while raging—it zoomed me back in, into the cave in the man’s face. The cave where his eyes had been.
Domination, as much as it controls bodies, controls vision. The one feeds back on the other. The father sees his sons as his perfect family returned; and to enforce the veracity of that image, he imprisons their bodies.
There was a special kind of punishment he had for them….He would make them go into the side room, one smaller than one made for sleeping, a green boxed-in space set aside, a room where against the wall a face feels crushed in….Many nights they would go in there, sit, to be looked at over across from him. He doesn’t want to see them moving from in there, only find them here, doesn’t want them moving. He wants to be seeing how neither one of them had gone away.
His sight, his vision, demands their stasis, but they insist on becoming, growing, leaving him behind.
The father is a brutal, violent man, but he’s also a simple one and hard-working. His “special kind of punishment” verges on torture, true, but his motivations are understandable. He’s lost his kids to the shelters and foster homes his ex abandoned them to, but now they’re back, his boys, his spitting images; and he can see now how things ought to be. School and homework, TV then dinner. Paint the walls and fix the place up. “Anyone should, the father wanted it said, see how much he loved those boys.” Those boys were “what the father has been working so hard for all along…to have them all back there together again.” He has imagined forever their being reunited, has cherished that concept so completely he’ll do anything to keep the surface of that image smooth. Hence his harsh restrictions. More than that, though, even—to his mind—he’s got to see himself as the fatherly protector. The friend, whom the boys love, is a pedophile and a predator, and the father must protect them no matter what. Such, anyway, is his conscious justification.
The friend, who “would take the stand saying how much he loved those boys, saying how he was going to try to make a home for them, saying how he would do anything for them,” was an old friend of the father’s, and of the mother’s besides. Just as the father’s abuse is complicated, the antidote to it the friend provides is equally fraught.
Anytime the boys came over, there were videos for them in the back to look at, other games. On one of them, you ran before anything shot down at you. New playing was learned, a skill to get through to the end, system kept new. The friend has a newer computer. Typing in whatever name brings up everything, to find out about anyone, anything. Over there were radio scanners, two-ways, shortwaves…The boys can take one of the radios over to their house if they want, so they can talk back and forth the nights they aren’t coming.
He grooms them with kindness and electronics. Instead of forcing them to be with him, he satisfies their desires for nicer stuff, better TV, escape from their brutal, mean lives—even if only virtually. Where the father forces them to perform the image of the happy family together at last, the friend teaches them to see a different set of images. From the surveillance footage of his security camera to the erotic photos that ring his bed, he lets them feel how it feels to look. On “all the equipment that lay around the trailer, stuff from so long ago, some of it is, has to be, even on old tapes, discs, boys with bodies like theirs still played.” The friend objectifies the boys—the brothers and the earlier others besides—but he also opens space up for their desires, a space where they can learn to see for themselves.
It’s with that power of sight, exercised in his notebook, that the younger brother realizes he has fallen in love with the friend. There is no doubt the friend manipulates the boy, takes advantage of his troubled home-life, and uses him to gratify his own, adult needs. Obviously. And yet, though he ratchets up the discomfort, the extent of their relationship becoming clear, Martin steadily avoids asserting binary morality. The younger brother loves the friend. He does. He doesn’t feel exploited at all. Rather, problematic and illegal as their relationship is, it allows him to be more himself than his father’s fairy tale ever could.
“It marked for a boy beginning to be who he believed he had always been. How. He was being allowed, encouraged even, even if the words for it at first were hard,” he thinks. “It was how he was, before he even ever became such friends with anyone. Love is the reason he is feeling. Nobody knows who he really is, and not all about it, he’d say, he writes. Sometimes you meet someone, and that changes the person.” He kisses the friend, and is pressed by him into his mattress. He loves him, and always wants to be with him. He daydreams about him, and runs away to try to make those dreams real. His nascent imaginings conflict directly with the father’s ideology.
If there were no father, everything would be different. The older brother, who has been passed from family to family for years, sees through the older man’s control. Just as he’d been given “all those names…off in other places, all those other ones they’d called him by, they meant nothing,” he sees their father’s power over them as the function of a very revocable title. “They weren’t going to call him by that anymore, they decided, euphemism…‘father.’”
Thinking of the father as no more than a stranger, a captor, cannot change the fact of their captivity. They cannot break free of his image of them until they break free physically. Not unlike the father himself, the older brother, when faced with the mismatch between reality and his vision, lashes out with violence. His baseball bat affects changes words cannot.
Martin neither condones these actions nor blames the kids for what they’ve done. Their view of the world is inchoate and limited, but their resistance to it is tragic in the classical, heroic sense. They are damned if they stay, damned if they leave, and blind to that fact until it’s too late.
In Wolf’s final sentences Martin recapitulates those main themes of change, belief, and the gap between vision and reality. He writes:
I imagine everyone has had the thought, if not every day at some point: how simple it would be to change everything just by doing the one thing. Picture your own father here, could you, as I did a man believing himself good as mine.
For every seemingly simple fix, there’s an everything with which to contend. Employing muscular, wide-open prose and deep, dark empathy, Martin succeeds in doing this exactly here: compels us to contend with an everything. Wolf works by struggle and resistance. It demands attention, re-assessment, re-reading. It does not persuade or lecture or recount, but troubles and thickens, blurs the edges of these characters’ subjectivities, and renders visible your own prejudgments. While the novel dramatizes a murder involving four men in ways we can only imagine, it also involves you and me, implicates us, moreover reveals the impossibility of our ever truly seeing the scene.