November 28, 2020: “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” by Laura van den Berg

Greetings to you, Story366!

Today I conclude what will be the last Two-Timers Week at Story366, weeks where I cover authors for a second time, for a different book. I have all of my books lined up through the end of the year, and none of them are authors I’ve featured here before. I committed to five such weeks to this project the year, plus a few random entries in between. So, nearly forty authors have been featured twice on this blog so far. I’m glad that I did so, though a tiny part of me thinks those forty slots could have been used for new authors—there’s plenty of books I haven’t covered and won’t get to this year. Overall, I have zero regrets. I’ll keep doing Story366 after this year—though not daily, probably never again—but if I come across a book and it strikes me, I’ll feature it here. Plenty of days ahead of me, plenty of books left to read.

The concept of Two-Timers has led me to new books by some of my favorite story writers, including today’s author, Laura van den Berg. She and I both had books on Dzanc in its early days, and since, her career has been nothing short of meteoric. I covered her follow-up collection, The Isle of Youth, back in February of 2016; I was pleased to buy her newest, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, out this year from FSG, at an indie bookstore today (on small-business Saturday, no less). I enjoyed reading from this book, as I’ve enjoyed all of van den Berg’s work to date.

The opening story is “Last Night” and is about a young woman who has been committed to an asylum after numerous suicide attempts. There she works through enough of her problems so that she’s okay enough to be released. On her last night, she and her roommates sweet-talk a guard into letting them out so they can take a walk. There, one of her roomies puts her head down on the tracks, possibly to kill herself (her roommates have been committed for the same reason that she had been), a train heading their way. van den Berg at times gets metafictional, the narrator aware of her storytellingness, sometimes questioning the facts of story, making us question them as well.

“Cult of Mary” is about another young woman who has traveled to Italy with her mother, on the trip of her lifetime. Since her mother has recently had a stroke and is not well enough to travel alone, our hero jumps aboard for the ride. They are part of a tour, a tour that leaves much to be desired, but still allows for an investigation into church politics, the nature of religion, and our narrator’s relationship with her mother.

My favorite story is the title story, “I Hold a Wold by the Ears,” again about an American woman traveling in Italy. The story begins with the woman, Margot, taxiing up a mountain to a remote, scenic village, where she’ll meet her sister, who bought the pair of tickets before her husband divorced her, leaving room for our protagonist. A free trip to Italy is a free trip to Italy, and Margot goes despite having very little money and a stack of credit card debt.

Sadly, as soon as Margot arrives in the village, Louise, her sister, calls and says she isn’t coming, that she’s still in Rome, and … the phone call abruptly ends there. Margot is horrified, first that she’s traveled all this way and is suddenly alone, then that she has very little money for expenses, and lastly, that her sister might be in some sort of trouble. She dials Louise constantly while on the trip, leaving messages, and eventually, turning to unlikely resources to find her sister.

Mostly, though, the story is centered on what Margot does with her time in this picturesque little town. She immediately meets Fillipo, the hotel front desk clear/concierge/manager, the only member of the staff who speaks English—or so he claims—making him her one and only contact. He asks to see her passport, saying he needs a copy of her picture, but when the copier doesn’t work, he stores it in an envelope and says he’ll give it back to her later, after he fixes the problem. Then the ATM eats her card, the last one with any funds available. This leaves Margot alone in a less-than-perfect hotel room, with no resources and no ability to leave.

Louise’s trip was doubling as a conference, and Margot attends the mixer, taking Louise’s name tag so she can get free food and drinks. She drinks too many wines, then is approached by a man in the lobby who has had too many himself. The man thinks Margot is Louise, then starts to kiss her, then proceeds to have sex with her, right there in the hotel lobby (though off to the side somewhere). Margot, who’d been purposely celibate for a while, poses as her sister, in her mind, for the event. It’s over really before it begins, and Margot shuffles back to the hotel, disappointed in her choices.

Margot has a series of run-ins and other adventures that complicate both her trip and her relationship with herself. She is worried about Louise, but can’t travel to look for her. She calls her ex-brother-in-law for help, though he doesn’t pick up. She also shares an interesting, horrible story about a man back in Minneapolis who plagued the city, randomly slapping women in the face and then running off, a serial incident that goes on six months before the man is caught. She later runs into the man from the conference again, this time both of them sober, and they have to reckon what they did, the man mistaking Margot for her sister and Margot letting him. Eventually, Margot has a confrontation with Filippo about her passport, which he’s stolen to trade for a marzipan lamb (which is another story altogether).

I like “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears,” the title story form the book of the same name, Laura van den Berg’s third collection of stories (adding to two novels). The characters here seem lost, depending on others to guide them home, only these others are even less up to the task than van den Berg’s heroes. These are innovative, gorgeous stories that see its characters work through their inner demons, allowing them to cope with the outer world for a little bit longer. This is another impressive offering from van den Berg, whose career has been the definition of impressive, with so much more to come.