In each of these nine stories, Chabon--particularly noted for his stylistic accomplishments--manages to flesh out a variety of characters in only a few pages, and sometimes in a few words. His sentences frequently seem to reach perfection, each word fitting precisely with a satisfying snap like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, without the disappointing sting of over-cleverness.
As I read each wholly original story, I couldn't help but respond frequently with a knowing smile and the warm realization of recognition. I've smelled that smell and heard that sound ("There was a stink of chlorine from the waterfall in the atrium where the chimes of the elevators echoed all night with a sound like a dental instrument hitting a cold tile floor"). I've seen that place, even though I've never been there ("Plunkettsburg was at first glance unprepossessing--a low, rusting little city, with tarnished onion domes and huddled houses, drab as an armful of dead leaves strewn along the ground"). I've felt that feeling ("The next day I lay in bed, aching, sore, and suffering from that peculiar brand of spiritual depression born largely of suppressed fear"). And I most assuredly know that person ("Oriole was a big, broad-backed woman, ample and plain and quadrangular as the state of Iowa itself. Hugging her, Eddie felt comforted, as by the charitable gaze of a cow"). Each page proffers several such stylistic gems, which serve to draw you into the story without putting you off with their brilliance.
Chabon has the ability to hook our heart by ripping the skin off some of the more devastating aspects of contemporary dysfunctional life--divorce, rape, alcoholism, mental illness--while giving us permission, even encouraging us, to laugh at the absurd behavior of these human beings who remind us so much of ourselves. These stories are bitingly funny because we know them, we've been there, or we've imagined them ourselves. They are fresh and original, and yet they resonate with familiarity.
Perhaps you had to have been a boy once to fully appreciate the haunting title story. Poignant and powerful, it prodded many of my own boyhood memories, stirring up emotional coals that still smolder in this 44-year-old body. "Werewolves in Their Youth" captures at once the magical imagination of youth--playing super-hero, android, or werewolf--and the harrowing, confusing reality that insists on breaking in when those childish fantasies go too far. It reads like a mature, modern Ray Bradbury, yet with a more satisfying and non-artificial ending. In fact, the endings of all these tales transmit a note of surprise, but without disingenuousness.
Here are ordinary people in ordinary situations--a graduation party, a bris, a night at a ramshackle island bar--who are revealed as twisted and awry because of their inner fear, violent anger, or confusion. Yet these are stories that repeatedly strike a chord because, after all, there's a little of the werewolf in each of us.