Review: The Beast in Aisle 34 by Darrin Doyle

     Darrin Doyle has probably written the best werewolf novel since Guy Endore’s Werewolf in Paris: A Novel  was published just a decade or so shy of a hundred years ago (The Wolfman by Pekaro would be a challenger as well). The Beast in Aisle 34 is a layered, dark, deeply absurd, hilarious, and utterly horrific novel. It also sets a highwater mark for prose and characterization in the genre. I’d recommend that anyone setting out to write their own entry for the werewolf section of the library read Doyle’s Beast first. 

     Doyle’s wolfman, namely Sandy Kurtz, is a kenneled man. Like all good characters that ought to be played by William H. Macy, Kurtz is trapped in a loveless marriage. His job at Lowe’s doesn’t love him much either. No man calls him “best friend.” Plus, things have gotten a little more complicated since he found out he has a baby on the way and, on a recent full moon, began transforming into a massive hairy killing machine that pops deer heads like Pez dispensers and swallows possums like popcorn. 

     Through Kurtz and a cast of unforgettable characters, Doyle interrogates toxic masculinity in much the same way Palahniuk flirted with in Fight Club. After all, both books feature an initially impotent narrator who can’t quite control the fact that he transforms into a powerful toxic (after a fashion in Kurtz) uber-male capable of great violence. Both are wonderfully witty and darkly comic. Fans of one are sure to love the other. But Doyle is a more nuanced and honest interrogator than Palahniuk. Funnier too. 

     Kurtz is as lost as we all are. He’s not any of the species of man normally observed in the wild. He’s not athletic, career focused, or sexy. He’s struggling to deal with his wife’s infidelity and he doesn’t know if he wants to be a good husband, or a good father. 

     Kurtz is a man looking for a sign, but he has no idea that is the case. Think of Paul on the road to Damascus, but there won’t be a divine light in his future.  Kurtz questions his identity, the degree to which he wants to participate in capitalism, and culturally defined gender roles. He goes through what we— what much of America—  is going through right now and that’s where Doyle really shines. 

     In terms of internal life, Doyle has done nothing less than do for werewolves what Alan Moore did for superheroes in The Watchmen. He’s taken off the big mask, the ugly snarling werewolf maw, and shown that we’re all wearing masks and becoming different creatures every once in a while. As Kurtz struggles with lycanthropic hungers, he reflects our own complex insecurities and the desires that rage within us. And the consequences for allowing those hungers more purchase than society allows. 

     Doyle’s plot is well-executed, and has action and plot-twists enough to keep even the most jaded werewolf junkie turning pages as Kurtz hurdles through Michigan’s wilderness dodging bullets, sasquatch cops, lycanthrope support groups, shotgun wielding farmers, and a few of his own kind. Despite conflict and danger at every turn, ultimately The Beast in Aisle 34 is the story of a human trying to overcome the worst aspects of humanity, and tearing down, with tooth and claw, the deceptions we build around ourselves as we give in to our urge to belong. Perhaps the novel’s most powerful element is watching Kurtz come to the realization that he must show himself as he truly is in order to truly connect with his wife, while at the same understanding that the truth of who he is will make it impossible for them to be together. 

     The Beast in Aisle 34 is a novel for our times, a bucket full of possum-popcorn horror-comedy, with a stomach twisting look at what it means to be a human being that will stay with the reader long after the howls have faded.

If you'd like to check out our hilarious intervew with Darrin, look no further.