Literature / A Wolf In The Soul
Gregory Samstag is a not atypical Jewish teenager
from Long Island. But he can't help but feel that his life lacks meaning. He went to a religious high school, but he and his family don't care enough to be religious. He himself has begun attending Columbia University, but there's nothing in particular he wants to learn. His parents are a complete mismatch for each other and they know it, but can't quite bring themselves to divorce. Recognizing the emptiness of his life, Greg puts up a wall of apathy between himself and the world - but he still can't or won't bring himself to change anything.
Only one thing threatens Greg's carefully structured yet meaningless existence: the fact that stray dogs keep randomly walking up to him and depositing fresh kills at his feet. Okay, that and the hairs that have begun to sprout from his forehead. And the weird fits he keeps having in which he hallucinates living the life of a wolf. And then he starts growing a tail...
The werewolf in Greg upends his entire existence. His desperation to find an answer revives a dormant, hesitant belief in God. He is forced to flee the university and the country after viciously attacking another student. His absence causes his parents' marriage to finally begin falling apart. And through all this is the seductive feeling, growing ever stronger, that the life of a wolf would be simpler, easier, more innocent than the life of a man.
A Wolf In The Soul contains examples of:
- Against My Religion: Aram convinces Greg to eat a pepperoni pizza, defeating his objections by pointing out that Greg doesn't follow any of the other precepts of Judaism.
- All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Very much averted. Almost everyone in the story, in fact, is at least partially Sephardi, other than the two major supporting characters who are black converts. The author is even careful to differentiate between Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciations when transliterating Hebrew.
- Alternate Identity Amnesia: Averted. Greg remembers everything he does as a wolf, which is the only reason he has a fighting chance.
- Arab-Israeli Conflict: What triggers the fight that forces Greg to flee from Columbia.
- Artistic License – Religion: The author admits in the introduction to creating some highly speculative aspects of Jewish mysticism that may not be in any way accurate.
- Author Tract.
- Bilingual Bonus: Though almost all of the Hebrew and Yiddish appearing in the book is either translated for the reader or simple enough to be accessible to non-speakers, there are one or two places where the text leaves a phrase unexplained.
- Black Best Friend: For one-third of the book, Greg's study partner Rafael in the yeshiva.
- Blatant Lies: "What, this? This isn't a wolf, it's my pet dog, Muffin. Do some tricks, Muffin."
- Body Horror.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Why Greg doesn't tell anybody about his condition for the first two-thirds of the book.
- Crossover Cosmology: Dr. Rumu may actually be psychic, and her Indian-mysticism-based advice to help Greg defeat the werewolf turns out to be very accurate, though ultimately insufficient. A very minor example, but its presence in a religious Jewish book is odd.
- Cursed with Awesome: The linchpin of the story. In order to be victorious, Greg needs to fully internalize that this isn't the case, even if he already thinks it's horrible on an intellectual level.
- Dramatic Thunder: Jack Crowe makes a dramatic statement and is very disappointed when this doesn't happen. He tries a few more times. Still doesn't happen.
- Easy Evangelism: Sort of. Greg abandons atheism surprisingly quickly, but it takes him a very long time to embrace religion in its entirety. Even at the end of the book he has a long way to go.
- Evil Feels Good: Being in wolf form provides Greg with some very tempting escapism.
- Fantastic Religious Weirdness: Holmes makes several attempts to explain what is happening to Greg in the context of Jewish mysticism. Dr. Rumu, with her Indian mysticism, oddly seems to have a more thorough grasp of exactly what is going on, but despite this she is less able to provide a cure.
- Foot-Dragging Divorcee: A rare example in which both parents are dragging their feet. They're still dragging their feet when the book ends.
- Fun with Acronyms: Greg's high school's initials are HAWL, pronounced "howl".
- Good Shepherd: Hakham Dawid.
- Heel–Faith Turn: Greg becomes a better person, such as learning to finally appreciate his best friend, through returning to Judaism.
- Hitler Ate Sugar: How Greg's father reacts to his becoming a vegetarian.
- Holy City: The middle third of the book takes place in Jerusalem.
- Howling to the Night: Greg and the jackals in Har Nof.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Several chapter titles are names of animals. The first three are Goose note , Cat, and Dog.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Zig-zagged. Greg wants to defeat the wolf... but it feels too good to be able to let go.
- Informed Judaism: How Greg ultimately comes to view his parents' behavior.
- In the End, You Are on Your Own: Averted. Though the story seems to be moving in this direction as Greg is forced to leave his friends first at Columbia and then in Israel, the climax of the book has him defeating the wolf with the help of Joey and Holmes, the latter behind the scenes..
- Just Woke Up That Way: Multiple theories are espoused to explain why Greg is transforming, but none of them are completely satisfying and answer all the questions.
- Left Hanging: Although Greg manages to defeat the werewolf and returns to normal, many other subplots, such as his parents' marriage and the reason he was infected in the first place remain unresolved.
- Meaningful Name: Several.
- Greg's last name, Samstag, means Saturday/Shabbat in German.
- Aram is a reference to Aram Naharaim, where Abraham came from.
- The Hakham Dawid has the same last name as the Chida, whose writings provide a few clues.
- Mentor Occupational Hazard: The Hakham Dawid is removed from the story thanks to suffering a stroke.
- The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Strongly averted. Long before he ever becomes a werewolf, Greg demonstrates animalistic behavior. His actions as a wolf can't be so easily blamed on the wolf.
- My Instincts Are Showing: Greg starts doing insane things like eating raw meat right in front of his family.
- Our Werewolves Are Different: Two types of werewolves are described in the book, completely unrelated to each other.
- One is an entire species of wolves who can take human form after consuming human blood.
- Greg, however, has something entirely different and altogether more mysterious. Dogs begin following him and leaving him gifts, he sees a wolf standing serenely in midair out of a second-story window, and he has blackouts that last only a few minutes or hours but during which he apparently lives out years in a wolf's body. While in wolf form, Greg is also immune to bullets, but though the effect of silver is discussed on occasion we never get to find out if it would hurt him or not. It's suggested that he has developed some psychic connection with a real, actual, wolf somewhere out there, which then seeked him out physically, confronted him, and then somehow began transforming his body - but there are a few holes in that theory as well, and a lot of it is left deliberately unexplained.
- Preacher Man: Hakham Dawid for his small, five-person yeshiva.
- Prayer Is a Last Resort: A mixed example. Greg begins to question his disbelief in God surprisingly quickly, but his prayers are half-hearted because of his uncertainty. Even when he starts to pray out of desperation, he does so merely because Holmes said it would help, and his prayers are still fairly rote and dispassionate. It is only when he sincerely thanks God for the existence of his best friend that he takes a major step towards being cured.
- Refuge in Audacity: Aram helps Greg escape campus police by giving him a ridiculously conspicuous hat. After all, the police will be looking for someone skulking around trying to hide, not somebody walking proudly down the street wearing garish clothes.
- Religious Horror.
- Religious Stereotype: The book is harsh on non-Orthodox Judaism, invoking the Orthodox stereotypes that it is inconsistent, hypocritical, and lacks meaning.
- Resist the Beast: Played straight with the physical transformation, but Greg keeps his human mind at all times except for during his out-of-body experiences.
- Savage Wolves: Greg vs. geese, Greg's wolf's pack vs. its father's pack.
- School Play: Greg plays the Cowardly Lion in a Hebrew translation of The Wizard of Oz.
- Separated at Birth: The Crowe twins.
- Silver Bullet: Name-checked.
- Silver Has Mystic Powers: Greg's inability to gargle silver water helps Dr. Belew make his diagnosis.
- Straw Vulcan: Played straight with Professor Toledano, who Greg says "couldn't step out of his rational ideology" and therefore "could hardly even feel the pain in another person's heart". Greg wasn't able to bring himself to show his pain to Toledano at all, so this complaint feels hollow. Ultimately subverted, though, with Hakham Dawid, who says many of the exact same "overly rational" things Toledano said earlier in the book, but imbues them with more meaning.
- Suspiciously Specific Sermon: The Hakham Dawid engineers this by inviting Greg to a specific sermon on the subject of wolves. Weirdness ensues.
- They Would Cut You Up: Why Greg doesn't tell his family about his condition in the last third of the book.
- Totally Not a Werewolf: Inverted. Greg fits the standard werewolf tropes a lot more than do the species of werewolves described in the mythology.
- Vegetarian Vampire: Nastily averted. In fact, it is suggested that Greg's vegetarianism as a human makes the carnivorous behavior of his wolf form a lot harder to control.
- Wolf Man: As the werewolf grows stronger and stronger, Greg's transformation back into human form each morning becomes less and less complete.
- Wolves Always Howl at the Moon: Averted, in combination with a Freudian Slip:
Gregory: "That's a myth. Wolves don't howl at the moon."
Gregory: "Why are they laughing?"
Rafael: "What did you expect would happen when you said, 'We don't howl at the moon'?"
- You Make Me Sic: Greg feels compelled to correct others' grammar, at least in his thoughts. Even while they're shooting at him.