I Read Craig Clevenger’s ‘Mother Howl’.

steve cuocci
6 min readJun 27, 2023

Sometime between 2004 and 2006, I fell in with a great group of friends who were deeply into fiction, and they were likely the biggest influence in me picking up books that were not simply fantasy titles. They all lauded Palahniuk’s work, but didn’t stop there, instead making big recommendations on authors I hadn’t heard of, likely because they weren’t Dan Brown or Kurt Vonnegut. One name that they brought up in such reverence was the author of this book: Craig Clevenger. I don’t know if I ended up reading Dermaphoria while I worked with them or some time after, but it left enough of an impact that I will always think of Clevenger as an author of note, even if only because I know that the name’s resonance will connect myself and this group of friends who remains close with me to this day. When this book was announced, I was excited of it, and had it listed as a google calender reminder, and what was so amazing… so true to the connective tissue of this group is that one of those friends reached out to me to remind me, apropos of nothing, that the book’s release date was coming up. I ended up receiving it as a gift for father’s day this year and blasted through it in a week.

One of the first things I noticed from this book is that it came across as way too edgy, coming in super fast with a darkness in the way that a table top role player thinks a tall mortician-type man would act in a noir film. In a lot of ways, the character Icarus reminds me of the narrator from Bastion. It’s a lot of smoke and whiskey and tough-linguist shit. I would say a good 60–70% of the first 100 pages are dedicated to Icarus’ search, and I kept wanting to return to Lyle’s story which was sparse and desperate. That being said, it was certainly a cliche “Life Is Hard” kind of story, but at least Lyle’s portion wasn’t narrated by what felt like a man in his early twenties wearing a fedora. I was eager to learn the purpose of Icarus’ visit, eager to learn more about what he was ‘sent’ to do. And, even in finishing the book, I still feel a bit unsatisfied in knowing the full arc of his journey. Throughout his sections of the book, a good chunk of the real estate is dialog, and a bigger part of that dialog is dripping [soaked in fact] with “Bad Ass Character Spiel” and as a person over 40… it becomes exhausting. Imagine a rivalry between two enemies in a shonen anime dragged out over 3 episodes without anything happening… this is how it feels to me.

The relationships, in fact, the people all kind of feel the same. They spit out their words, have histories that make them crippled to sensation. All of them seem nasty to one another, all but one man whose entire character description feels like he used to be in the same vein as the main cast, but he’s now gone sober so he’s given the sardonic bit a rest, instead happy enough to be the grandfather who’s become a softy in his older years. With Lyle (the main character) and his wife, there are times when you believe their love, believe their circumstance, and then there are times where the misery is just enough to not need to read about it. The balance is stricken perfectly, with their relationship cast on the table as just good enough for Lyle to not want to lose, but also just shitty enough to make it feel like Lyle is having a hard time with life. Every page feels like we’re puffing the exhaust of the vehicle of Lyle’s situation. Drawing portraits of the dogshit his life has become. At some point, I had to say to the book: “Okay. I get it.” The man simply has no existence that I believe in. His past drags him down, his present is clogged with a towering list of responsibilities, and his future is something that we barely can even strive for. I don’t understand his goals, I don’t understand his tomorrows. I don’t even know if he goes to work, I don’t know if he spends quality time with this family, I don’t know where his mind exists when he’s not patting himself on the back for loving the fact that The System doesn’t know his real name. At some point, I’m meant to feel some sympathy for the fact that he has a Parole Officer who is doing his job. Officer Reid is a character who holds a pretty big percentage of the story even if he doesn’t exist on the page at hand, he exists in terms of the limits to this character, and why Happiness and/or Prosperity doesn’t seem like a reality. It doesn’t seem like a possibility. A lot of the way this main character behaves is the way it feels to talk to someone who has recently been broken up with in a long-term relationship. The desperation is overwhelming, all-consuming… and as much as you try to help that person find relief or hope or a new day, they continue to generate quicksand that brings themselves down. Words are futile. Thoughts are futile.

Sadly, the characters are all flat. Exhaled of misery with nothing more to add. Not even an ember of ambition to scrape themselves to shore. They are all adrift in an impoverished world where everything is dark and windswept, cockroaches in every drawer. Every one of the people we meet has the vitality of a person in the line at the DMV. And within this, there isn’t the spark of humanity that an author like Cormac McCarthy is able to grant texture to. Instead, they feel like carbon copies of The System, carbon copies of “SoCiEtY”… it sadly kind of feels the way that adolescents view the world. People who would idolize The Riddler from the newest Batman movie. It feels victimizing. It feels hollow.

The book doesn’t seem to move until about halfway through, and when it did start to lurch into a direction, I didn’t realize it was until I looked backwards at it. There is a journey into a gulping depth, a matte darkness one of the main characters enters that you can sort of feel. I like how so much of that plummet is described in confusing and unsure ways. While I wish there was more descriptive ways Clevenger went about it, I’m a little torn about how I experienced it. On the one hand, I feel like I missed it as it was happening. It felt clunky, annoying, hesitant, hustled over. I couldn’t get my mind around it, couldn’t get my fingers wet with it. But on the other hand, I feel like that’s a pretty realistic way to go through what he’s going through. It’s how we would look back at a hurried descent. Our memories would make it worse. Our fears would amplify it. But the journey would always be this clumsy and rushed panoramic, stark and brief, forever longer in how we would talk about it than how we lived it. It was the first spark of thought or feeling I’d had over the [something like] 160 pages that preceded it.

Shortly after this physical descent, we get a chance to read a letter that is the most exciting part of the book, and then engage in an interaction that really continues to move the book in a direction towards some sort of conclusion. Things continue to happen rapidly after that, as we now have an endpoint that we’re working towards and a means with which to grasp it. And I think as the book begins to come upon an ending, I started to see things come together that started to make sense to me, an outcome that felt tangible and real… and then things got confusing again. I started to accept the outcomes of what they were saying as they were saying it and was ultimately ready to move on. And sadly, the one portion of the ending i was ready to accept ended up getting washed out anyway.

This book was disappointing to me in so many ways, especially considering how much I was looking forward to it! I wonder if my taste is changing or if it has something to do with being “older” and the fact that edgy and sardonic characters just don’t strike me the way that they would a college sophomore. I’m stoked that Clevenger wrote this and I’m happy he continues to create new works, but sadly I would not recommend this one, even to fans of his work. Please do take the time to read his other two though!!

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