book club: ‘tell the wolves i’m home’.

by Michael King

One night, in hopes of burning some time before a movie, my friend Chris and I traveled to the wondrous world of Target. Equipped with a peculiar blend of purposelessness and adventure, we wandered the supermarket with open eyes. What do you have to offer? we asked the shelves.

It was then that my friend found, and suggested I read, Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
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Tell the Wolves I’m Home opens in the final days of Finn, an artist, gay man, and victim to the early-80’s AIDS crisis that claimed the lives and talents of many men like him. For his final project, he sets out to paint a portrait of his nieces, June and Greta. June, the narrator of the story, shares a special connection to Finn. When, at last, the portrait is complete and Finn has died, June works to move forward, though she has lost the only person she felt understood her deeply imaginative, sensitive spirit.

“The bed was warm and ordinary and perfect, and it had been such a long, long day. Probably the longest day of my life. I felt like I had proof that not all days are the same length, not all time has the same weight. Proof that there are worlds and worlds and worlds on top of worlds, if you want them to be there.”

Complexity exists within June’s family structure. Her older sister, Greta, is bold and talented, though Greta envies June’s imagination and solitude. The portrait, upon closer study, reveals negative space in the form of wolves between the sisters. Mourning alone, June is surprised to learn that Finn had a lover, Toby, who carefully reaches out to June. Soon, June is journeying to the City to see Toby, feeling responsible for taking care of the man her uncle loved.

“I decided to stop even trying to hold back the tears… I stood there, shaking and heaving on Madison Avenue in front of Toby, waiting for him to run away or shove me into a taxi, but he didn’t. He stepped in, put his long arms around me, and leaned his head on my shoulder. We stood there under that awning until I could feel that he was crying too. The click of Toby’s mint against his teeth, and the squeal of car brakes, and the rain plinking on the canvas over our heads all joined with our low deep sobs to make a kind of music that afternoon. It turned the whole city into a chorus of our sadness, and after a while it almost stopped feeling bad and turned into something else. It started to feel like relief.”

The writing in Tell the Wolves I’m Home is exploratory and profound. Examining the complexities of family, of the secrets and love between people, of loss, the novel hits a variety of emotional tones. Each time I closed Wolves for the night, I found myself pondering the significant people in my life. Do they know that I love them? What are the barriers between us, and when did they get there? Did we truly build them, together?

“Greta lowered the magazine, looked up at me for a second, and smiled. As the elevator door started to close, she stood and put up one hand to wave goodbye. That’s one of those frozen memories for me, because there was something in Greta’s solemn wave that made me understand it was about something bigger. That, as the elevator door eclipsed the look between us, we were really saying goodbye to the girls we used to be. Girls who knew how to play invisible mermaids, who could run through dark aisles, pretending to save the world.”

The narrative journey in Wolves is winding and hard; it broke my heart not once, but several times, in the way that loving people in our lives repeatedly breaks our hearts. After each hardship, however, we are with June as she sits in the stillness and examines the pieces of herself. We understand what it is to move forward, in life, following all of it. The highs and the lows and the loves and the losses.

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