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‘Wolf at the Table’ is a wearisome look at a dysfunctional family

Adam Rapp, a Tony-Award-finalist playwright, is the author of "Wolf at the Table."
Courtesy photo
Adam Rapp, a Tony-Award-finalist playwright, is the author of "Wolf at the Table."

Adam Rapp’s new novel, Wolf at the Table, suffers from inaccurate marketing. Billed as “The Corrections meets We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the book tells the multigenerational story of the Larkin family of upstate New York, which just happens to be harboring a serial killer in their midst. The cover shows a dining table set for a family meal, but it’s out in the middle of dried-up pasture land, with gloomy storm clouds overhead.

So I expected something eerie and foreboding — and possibly, hopefully, thrilling. What I got instead was a plodding family saga that’s relentless in detail but short on substance.

The novel begins in late summer 1951, with 13-year-old Myra Larkin reading Catcher in the Rye and dreaming of a more glamorous existence. She meets a young man who tells her he’s Mickey Mantle and gives her a ride home. Later that night, a triple homicide happens just down the street. That sets a tone of grisly violence and begs for answers, but the novel simply wanders away from its dramatic opening and follows Myra and her siblings as they fan out across the country and have children and grandchildren of their own.

I’ll say this: Rapp can write. On a pure sentence level, his scenes offer vivid descriptions and realistic dialogue. He deftly explores the nature-versus-nurture of mental illness, struggles with faith, and the messy loyalties of family. But many of the details add little to the overall story, so we’re left turning pages and wondering why.

Wolf at the Table is a long novel, at nearly 500 pages, and it definitely feels too long at times.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.