Alice White, a university student, visits her faculty adviser one day and finds him to be handsome, flirtatious ("He was good-looking, though not in the tweedy way she'd expected. . . . He looked as if he should be camping somewhere. . . . Who was he away from this office?"). The adviser, Erik Summers, seems to like her as well. ("He watched her walk down the hall, knowing he was being unprofessional. . . . Her long braid swung back and forth. He imagined his hands on her hips.") A friendship ensues. Then --"much more," as the saying goes.
This being a novel, not actual life, we are on the brink of a story about werewolves (not accusations of sexual harassment, professional censure and the other likely consequences of such dalliance nowadays).
Alice has a problem: Every full moon, she begins to feel strange, and soon she turns into a full-blown female wolf. As it happens, Prof. Summers is a wildlife biologist, but even he will have a hard time accepting his undergraduate lover as a furry, long-muzzled, loping carnivore ( Canis lupus ). When he does learn the strange truth about her, he understandably takes a few steps back. Alice feels rejected, and she runs away, tearfully.
Dennis Danvers, whose first novel this is, manages to make his story roughly plausible. His method is to be strictly realistic about everything--everything except the really big thing. Maybe he has read "Bear" by Marian Engel; maybe he has read "Mrs. Caliban" by Rachel Ingalls, or "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Stevenson. He is interested in trans-species love, in a general way; more specifically, he is concerned about the repressed side of us all, the wild, primordial half that we supposedly hide.
There is nothing to be ashamed of, he seems to feel, in turning into a wolf; on the contrary, a werewolf might well be described as someone who is more in touch, simply more honest about his elemental, urge-driven self. To illustrate the dangers of being out of touch, Danvers introduces the character of Luther Adams, Alice's skeptical psychiatrist. Dr. Adams is controlling, self-deluding, and mean to his wife. He fills his garden with topiary figures of wild animals--not the real thing at all.
Are werewolves dangerous? No more so than ordinary wolves, we find; which, as everyone knows by now, are pretty cuddly, nothing like the gross stereotypes of ages past. Wolves are social creatures, protective of their young, highly intelligent (not "cunning," which suggests the luring of toothsome toddlers into ambush), and never, ever dangerous to humans.
Alice herself never has hurt anyone while in her wolfish state; there was only that one regrettable incident, back when she was 14, when she had just begun to "change." With a single swipe of her wolf fangs, she tore out the throat of a laborer on her father's farm. But the guy had been getting fresh with her; he was a wolf of another kind. Therefore, he deserved what he got, absolutely. Otherwise, Alice has never posed a threat to civilized humanity. The only problem comes from people: from our human incapacity to accept what we all know lurks in our hearts.
Danvers has many of the virtues of a true novelist. He writes simply, clearly, and he imparts momentum to his story; his characters often are likable, and some of them have psychological roundness and depth. He will go far, one suspects. One day, he may even free himself from the need to write correctly, to point up worthy conventional beliefs; and then he will write even better books than this one.
But in "Wilderness," his hero, Erik Summers, is a kind of New Age, feminist paragon: infinitely understanding, wholly domesticated, nonviolent, denatured. (Odd, in a book about the inner beast.) As someone says of him, "You are a very nice man . . . I can see why Alice loves you. You remind me of Howard--too serious by half, but sweet and very, very kind. It's hard to have too much of that."
By the same token, the "wolf" within us all, our supposedly repressed anima, is not the stuff of dreams, certainly not of nightmares: not a rampaging force, something conflicted, problematical, full of poetic interest and mystery. No, this is a wolf-image also for the New Age, maybe even for a new version of "Bambi."
By bringing responsible, conventional wisdom to bear on the idea of actual wolves, Danvers has bled a great metaphor white, gutted it of power. From now on, it might be better to think of the "squirrel" within; or on really heady days, the lab rat, or the house cat.