Anxiety over the “right” way to be a man is something many men face. Pressure is frequently placed upon men to continue a legacy for the family by taking on the father’s business and creating progeny to carry on the family name and bloodline. This is something that the central character of Mattie in “Wolf, Wolf” by Eben Venter has refused to do. Rather than joining his father’s successful motorcar business, he’s spent his twenties travelling, engaging in sexual escapades and indulging in narcotics. When the novel begins he’s back at his father’s home in South Africa where he’s become his Pa’s primary care-giver. His terminally ill father has lost his sight and his physical health is rapidly declining due to the chemo-therapy he’s been receiving. Before his Pa dies, Matt wants to prove to him that he can be a responsible man with a successful business of his own. His father is a committed Christian and disapproves of Matt’s homosexuality and his relationship with a teacher named Jack. Matt needs his father’s financial backing to get his plan to establish a healthy food stall. With each man wanting the other to compromise their beliefs about what a man should be, father and son are embroiled in a battle of will.
Venter writes about family relations with great sensitivity and insight. In particular, the connection between father and son feels very heartfelt. Matt tenderly cares for his father during the elderly man’s severe illness, yet becomes too possessive about it and wants to assume all the responsibility over other members of his family. He admires a certain kind of manliness he sees in his father’s character and even in his signature: “It’s pure, that’s what it is. It is masculinity, the essence of it, that engenders such a signature.” Yet, he instinctually knows that this isn’t the same kind of man he could or would want to become. The father Bennie appreciates his son and dearly wants to support him to establish himself. At the same time, he’s torn apart by knowing “Our bloodline stops with you, Mattie… I suppose that’s the will of the Lord, I don’t want to kick against it. But let me tell you this today, Mattie, it’s a bitter pill for Pa to swallow.” As the novel progresses, you question whether the caring and support they show each other is genuine or if each man is motivated by the desire to be the dominant one to assert how masculinity is defined.
The novel also presents a unique representation of a long-term gay relationship. Through no real fault of his own, Jack encounters trouble at the school he teaches at which causes him to lose both his position and residence. He secretly takes up living with Matt at his father’s house and plays a game where he hides under a wolf mask to disguise his presence. This game takes on a weightier kind of symbolic meaning as the novel progresses – where men who are counter to the mainstream become the threat which lies in wait outside of the house or society in general. Matt and Jack’s relationship has its own difficulties as their intimacy flounders due to Matt’s addiction to porn. Rather than confront the issue by speaking directly to each other, Jack takes the issue up with friends by posting public messages on Facebook. Throughout the narrative we get the projections of his consciousness in these messages rather than reading his unmediated voice. Similarly we’re given the messages Matt’s father records on tape for his son where he speaks with a confessional sincerity he can’t use with Matt in person. It’s a complex way of presenting ongoing emotionally-stilted relationships between men.
“Wolf, Wolf” is ultimately a tragic take on the way dominant ideas about masculinity can overshadow the feeling between a father and son. Looming over Matt’s relationship with his Pa is “an arrogance as hard and cold as an old, old mountain; orthodoxy elevated over love.” This novel has a fascinating perspective on what being a man means and how men can be filled with such contradictory behaviour. As Matt’s father observes “Men are such odd creatures… A man is a strange thing.” It’s also a multi-layered portrait of a new South Africa with its own particular difficulties to do with class, religious and racial differences. This is a strikingly original novel that has an unsettling, haunting effect.