William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark, its jacket copy proclaims, is “an Alaskan Oresteia.” The comparison is perfectly calibrated to grab and hold this failed Classicist’s attention, and I found myself puzzling over it as I read. Soldiers come home from war, but I found no Clytemnestra, no Agamemnon, no Orestes, no Elektra. Certainly no Cassandra uttering syllables that can’t hold onto their meaningunless one hears her wailing in the howls of Alaska’s wolves. Only blood, flowing crimson like the carpet Agamemnon walked to his castle and his death, as Vernon Slone cuts through the countryside.
The writing in Giraldi’s new novel is spare but well-crafted: “taut” is the word du jour. Still, I can’t help but feel the first half of the novel possesses a quiet, haunting elegance that the second half does not. These earlier pages are silent and snowy; they rest eerily with one foot in the realm of myth, another in our own reality. But once Slone returns to the small village of Keelut, dialogueand gunfireseize the prose and do not release it, reminding readers that the strongest character Giraldi has created is the Alaskan wilderness itself. Too much time given to “taut” dialogue, frozen blood, and the slice of Vernon Slone’s knife, and you begin to long for snowdrifts and hungry-eyed wolves. But then, The Libation Bearersin which Orestes storms the palace to kill his mother and unclewas also the least compelling portion of Aeschylus’s trilogy.
The Oresteia’s three plays tell the story of the origins of human justice. Agamemnon’s family, cursed before any of them were born for the sins of ancestors, self-destructs in revenge killing and madness after his return from Troy. He is murdered by his wife in retaliation for the sacrifice of a daughter twenty years before; she, in turn, is killed by her children, Orestes and Elektra. The Furies pursue Orestes, driving him to insanity. But when they finally catch him, Athena intervenes, insisting that twelve Athenians sit as his jury. The Furies are forced into the shadowsexcept by a name, the Eumenides (Kindly Ones), that belies their true terror. The rule of law is established on a mean that predates Aristotle: “Neither anarchy nor tyranny, my people,” the goddess charges.
Hold the Dark, then, is an anti-Oresteia, one that follows with silent terror as a nature writer stumbles into a place where the rule of society and of the “younger gods” have broken down. The villagers of Keelut are silent as their children go missing to the wolves, and silent again as bodies pile up when Vernon Slone returns from Iraq and seeks his revenge for the murder of his son. The laws of Athens are rejected, as are the Bible’s Noahide Laws. Neither system is invoked by name, but in their complete violation, the novel presents not a world in which evil has triumphed, but one in which the basic obligations of humans as social beingsto establish civil society and recourse for its governanceare ignored. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Such a placeand what it says about the dark hidden in the human soulis not something Americans are prepared to comprehend. At least not to the degree that Russell Core, the nature writer called to investigate the wolves plaguing Keelut, stands in for those raised by and to believe in civilization. There are no excuses, no explanations, no striving for understanding. None are offered; none are possible. Keelut is more degenerate, in this way, than Aeschylus’s Thebes: at least the members of Agamemnon’s family, before and after him, could rightly claim their actions were attempts to restore some lost balance to the world. Not herejust the reminder that civilization is fragile, and this is life within its ruins. Hold the Dark watches mutely as horrors unfoldnot because the collapse is inevitable, but because, in this corner of Alaska, it has already been completed.