How charged was the last novel you read?

The question is borrowed from novelist William Giraldi, who borrowing in turn from Ezra Pound (“literature is language charged with meaning”) posed it in the course of an infamous takedown of another young writer’s work in the New York Times Book Review a couple of years ago. Writers, Giraldi said then, have a moral obligation to write well, “to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew”--a demanding standard, formulated not just to wield against the subject of his critique but against which to hold fiction in general. Thus it seems only fair to ask: Does Giraldi himself meet it?

Giraldi won praise for his 2011 debut, Busy Monsters, a voice- and language-driven novel that prompted critic D.G. Myers to call him “the bastard literary son of Evelyn Waugh.” Giraldi’s latest is Hold the Dark, which could be described as a literary horror story set in snowbound Alaska, but that would sell it short. It’s not the supernatural but the nature of evil that Giraldi investigates, commencing with an opening line that could inspire envy among genre writers who’ve made their names hooking readers from the start: “The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut.” There’s little evidence of Waugh but signs of Cormac McCarthy, whose own Child of God opens “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning straw” and whose Blood Meridian Giraldi seems to have consulted (perhaps along with a Pekinpah film or two) for just how to compose scenes of explicit but dramatically effective and thematically relevant violence.

Giraldi’s Keelut is a remote village “where there’s something off,” says one inhabitant, “something wrong with the sky.” “You’re not acclimated,” the protagonist, called in from the lower forty-eight like an exorcist to handle the wolf problem, is repeatedly reminded, “you’re not from here”--thought it’s only symbolically the cold he’s not accustomed to, and he soon realizes it’s not the wolves that are the real issue anyway, it’s the people. “I’m not prepared for this,” he concedes early on, somewhat prophetically: There is something secretive and unsettling about the mother of one of the disappeared children, while the father—an Iraq war veteran—soon embarks on a murderous spree of vengeance, impartially dispensing the kind of brutality he has seen in combat, though it’s suggested he would have been just as capable of it had he never left Alaska at all.

Giraldi’s plotting is straightforward and solid, the pursuit of the mystery and the underlying strangeness of the setting propelling the narrative. The language, however, is what distinguishes Hold the Dark—what, in fact, charges it. There’s more than mere craftsmanship on display; it’s skill wed with that sense of obligation to readers, a commitment to using language to help them think differently and more deeply about what they see on the page. Hold the Dark exhibits none of the “silvery cutlass swipes through the air” that James Wood recently wrote of in bemoaning contemporary fiction’s fetishizing of style; there is nothing that’s lax or lazy or showily gratuitous, just words well used in service of larger aims. A nursing home attendant the week before Christmas offers a “candy cane broken at its curve”; later, a counsellor is seen with a “gold crucifix nestled in her jugular notch,” contrasting an earlier “undusted crucifix that kept watch upon galoshes and gloves.” Broken at its curve, notch, and undusted are surprises, and signs of careful decision-making on the author’s part. The same can be said of “snow gave the glimmer of rattled foil,” of a makeshift streetlamp with “fangs of ice hanging from its shade,” of “a shadow town without a name, a commune pushpinned into the base of a bluff.” In demonstrating his point that writers can and must do better than describe teeth as “white,” he gives us teeth like “cubes of shattered plate glass” and “stream pebbles,” among other things. “Every book lives or dies by its language,” Giraldi has said; Hold the Dark makes clear how seriously he believes it.

Giraldi and Christopher Beha have been linked as contemporary Catholic novelists less interested in questions of faith than in portraying religion “as inextricably woven into human life.” Hold the Dark seems more in keeping with the work of McCarthy in this regard, and maybe in a similar line to that of Robert Stone. Regardless, it’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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