— (Concord Free Press, 2018)
Fantasy writer Harlan Ellison once said that “a continent is no thicker than a membrane when one carries the misery inside.” He was talking about the tormented life of another author, Herbert Kastle, who had moved from New York to Los Angeles in an attempt to restart his life after a failed marriage, running from ghosts that he couldn’t escape from since they were a part of himself.
Thomas, the protagonist of William Hastings’ splendid first novel The Howling Ages, is one such character, trying to put miles between himself and what he describes as the “silence” in his life. An expat American teacher in Kuwait, he thinks the “silence is having too much of what I don’t need and not enough of what I truly want.”
This dissatisfaction, which is as much professional and economic as it is emotional, has taken him to the city of Hawally, where he teaches at the private American School. He earns the money he cannot make in his own country to provide for his wife Jenny and his seven-year-old son Peter. Although he talks with Jenny every day, there is a growing isolation between them. This is accentuated by Thomas’ relationship with Lin, a Filipina prostitute who came to Kuwait to work as a maid but had to quit when she could not take more abuse from the rich family that employed her.
When he is not with Lin, Thomas spends his days teaching or smoking a sheesha pipe and playing dominoes at a local café. It is there that he meets Nasser, a feared police chief who also happens to be one of Lin’s clients. Nasser, who received special training in Fort Bragg after the first Gulf War, likes to discuss politics with Thomas but there is one unspoken subject that generates a lingering tension between them: Lin. The tension comes to the fore during a camping trip to the desert in which Thomas joins Nasser in spite of the risk that he may not come back alive.
The title of Hastings’ novel alludes to a passage in The Call of the Wild by Jack London. It describes the feral nature that our ancestors bequeathed us—one that transcends the ages and often reminds us that in certain places, like the Kuwaiti desert and its solitude, our civilized conventions are of limited use. The Howling Ages charts Thomas’ immersion into a new society as he sheds his old identity. He and many of the immigrants he sees every day cannot go back “home to the families that could not join us in Kuwait, either in the desert or on the high-rise construction sites, in the schools or the restaurants, in the Kuwaiti homes in servant’s uniforms, in the litter-filled streets of Hawally that smelled like biyani rice and diesel smoke at night.”
Immersion is a common theme in Hastings’ work. A resident of New Hope, Pennsylvania, he is also the author of The Hard Way, which is either the most unusual book you’ll ever read about food and cooking, or an idiosyncratic—and captivating—mediation on traveling, the pace of modern life, leading your own way—and good eating. Meanwhile, Hastings’ choice of a Jack London-inspired title may be explained by the fact that Hastings is also the editor of Stray Dogs: Writings from the Other America, an anthology of short stories by some of the best working-class writers in the country. In The Howling Ages, these influences converge on a succinctly poetic story told with a disciplined but evocative prose.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza