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Review: Wolves of Eden, by Kevin McCarthy
Norton, 2019. 350 pp. $26

It’s late 1866 at Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory, in the Black Hills. Custer’s Last Stand is still ten years in the future, but as this story begins, massacre is the order of the day. The Sioux and the U.S. Army show no quarter, and murder and mutilation — sometimes in reverse order — harden hearts.

Into this bloodbath come three soldiers from Nebraska, most particularly Captain Molloy and Corporal (later Sergeant) Daniel Kohn. Their orders: to investigate the killing of a sutler and his wife, who ran a brothel near the fort. With so much bloodshed going on, it’s a wonder the army would take the trouble to send a mission of inquiry, especially when nobody likes a sutler, a camp merchant who charges extortionate prices for necessaries and amusements alike. Moreover, most of the soldiers are native Irish, including many veterans of the barely concluded Civil War, and they distrust all officials, not least investigators.

Since Captain Molloy, native Irish himself, quickly winds up in the fort’s hospital with a broken leg, he leaves the sleuthing to Kohn. How he’ll fare, and what really happened to the sutler and his wife — as opposed to rumor or appearances — forms the plot.

Red Cloud, a gifted Lakota chief, in Charles Milton Bell’s 1880 photograph. In the late 1860s, he conducted a brilliant defense of Native American land in the Dakota Territory against great odds (courtesy South Dakota Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

However, the narrative begins with Michael O’Driscoll, one of two key suspects, writing down in his jail cell the truth as he witnessed it, for Captain Molloy’s eyes. Michael’s brother, Tom, is also implicated in the murder. So Wolves of Eden starts with a prologue and a trope, the manuscript that tells all. And this account is written by a man who’s got an eloquent pen and a superb eye for detail, even as he claims he’s hardly lettered.

Despite that, Wolves of Eden works as a tale of hard men in a kill-or-be-killed world. Sometimes you look around in vain for a character with whom to feel sympathy — reader, be advised — but the narrative feels splendidly authentic. I believe this is how the common soldier lived, thought, and fought, and though Michael comes to appreciate his adversaries’ bravery and tenacity, even to toy with the idea that their cause is just, he still hates them, in virulent terms.

There’s a lot of hatred in this novel, which can test a reader’s resolve. But McCarthy performs several valuable services. First and foremost, he exposes the U.S. government’s willingness to exterminate Native Americans for the benefit of gold prospectors or “settlers,” who have entered the territory illegally. Secondly, McCarthy portrays that hatred as the war’s driving force on the ground, and the fighting men feel lonely in their struggle, knowing that only the participants understand what’s going on, certainly not officials at their desks in Washington. Finally, the author gives voice to Irishmen who made up a substantial part of American armies during the 1860s. Throughout, the Civil War lurks in vivid memory, and Michael will never forget it:

It was the wager a boy made when he took on in Uncle Sam’s big show in the South seeking a new start in the world. Never mind the racking fear we felt or the night visions or nerves that snapped like bullwhips or jangled like jailer’s keys. Never mind hands that shook & would not stop shaking so that a tin mug of coffee was hard to sip without slopping down a poor boy’s tunic. Never mind all that because in truth no soldier in this world does ever think he will be one a bullet picks to visit.

Since he’s writing from the fort stockade, the story answers whether he’ll swing for the murders. McCarthy does well keeping the pages turning, though Wolves of Eden isn’t a mystery. He calls it a thriller, but I don’t see that; there are setbacks but few examples of “no — and furthermore,” and the prologue gives away too much, as they always do.

I believe the Irish characters implicitly and all the soldiers, except Daniel Kohn. He’s supposed to be Jewish, but since he has little inner life to speak of, he could be anybody, despite his ability to speak Yiddish and the constant insults he receives. He has only one redeeming trait, his devotion to his alcoholic captain, whose life he’s trying to save. Yet since he’s the driving force behind the investigation — which Molloy seems to wish to restrain —Daniel’s single-minded obduracy, which pays little attention to rules of evidence, tickles my cultural antennae. Is he meant to be a Judas, intent on betraying Christian men? Fie. Does he represent the canard about the harsh Jewish God compared to the forgiving, Christian one? Fie again.

I can’t pretend to know what the author intended. All I do know is that I’m put off from reading his other books.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.