Each of Adam Foulds’s recent novels suggests a cloud chamber into which some physicist has introduced particles that won’t bond. In The Quickening Maze (2010), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he portrays two real-life British poets: John Clare, the son of laborers, who dashes off odes to nature, and Alfred Tennyson, an aristocrat who composes meditations on philosophy and history. These writers couldn’t have stood further apart—and meanwhile other characters introduce additional disagreements—but Foulds makes everything come together. Now, with In the Wolf’s Mouth, Foulds ratchets the conflict up considerably. The novel takes place during World War II, primarily in Sicily, where “liberation” only unearths deeper discord, much of it instigated by the Mafia. The drama may not satisfy as thoroughly as in Maze, but it certainly sets its particles whirling.
The novel’s opening strives for historical breadth, introducing its two major Sicilian players just as they’re swept up in the vast changes brought on by a “mule-jawed, cuckolded son of whore,” Il Duce Mussolini. The Fascists imposed a crackdown on the Mafia, one of the few to prove effective, and the prologue of Wolf’s Mouth, dated 1926, renders this upheaval as a furtive embrace and a few stolen sheep. A town capo named Cir˛ Albanese must flee, while his former victim, the shepherd Angil¨, forges an alliance, secondhand, with the Fascists—thus putting things in place for a later turnabout.
The majority of the novel takes place in 1942. As Il Duce’s regime begins to collapse, we meet two in the Allied rank and file: Will Walker, a British field security officer (combining, that is, intelligence and police work), and the American infantryman Ray Marfione (note the Italian heritage, and the echo of the war-god Mars). These two characters build on Foulds’s contrapuntal scheme. Will yearns for action while Ray, flung into combat, begins to suffer what was then called “shellshock”; Will kicks the Mafia hornet’s nest, seeking a scandal that might advance his career, while Ray withdraws into such dread that, even hiding out in a Sicilian palace, he combs his room for booby traps.
The author’s aesthetic control, keeping history and personality in balance, often asserts itself at the level of style. The verbs, freshly apropos, can startle, as in, “Closing his buzzing notebook, hushing the pages together,” or “so hot that red rivets were weeping out of the metal.” A storm at sea, en route to invasion, smartly foreshadows the inferno to come: “There was a kind of mad festivity about it as they puked and shouted, kicked about inside a turbulence equal to their dread.”
Yes, and good, yet as we collect background on both Ray (a good boy with a brother who’s a "goodfella") and Will (savvy about politics yet seduced by The Wind in the Willows), the reading grows stodgy. After all, once Cir˛ Albanese turns up again, we understand that Wolf’s Mouth is headed to a reckoning. Albanese is one of the made men enlisted to help with “defascistification”—the gobbledygook is historically accurate, as is the Mafia collusion—and Will’s unit has delivered the aging extortionist back to his old turf, Sant’Attillio (a name that references soldier-saints). The town still has a prince, and a palace, but Albanese can work around those; the real obstacle is the prince’s new factotum, the former shepherd Angil¨.
As scores near settling—more like shuffling, in Foulds’s hands—the field security officer remains pertinent. Will has suspicions about Albanese, and he sits down with Angil¨. Dogface Ray, however, matters less and less. When he turns up in the prince’s palace, it’s only because he’s gone AWOL, and inadvertently at that. He’s no longer in combat, but rather, as an Italian-American, some ill-defined variety of civilian liaison.
Indeed, Ray’s new assignment reflects an overall lessening in intensity. It’s not just that the battle scenes allow Foulds to deploy his skewed verbs and staccato phrasing in ways that raise the reader’s hair. More than that, the hostilities are what bring his disparate elements together in the first place. War is what the book is about, really; it’s in the title, an Italian expression that begs mercy even in the worst of circumstances. In this wolf’s mouth, however, later developments feel merely inconvenient. The different trajectories of the American and the Brit carry them awfully far afield, while the townspeople react to their born-again tough with little more than a shrug. I recalled by contrast how The English Patient keeps WWII central. Even after the fighting has left Ondaatje’s patient far behind, the news out of Hiroshima brings out guns and howls for blood.
Of course, The English Patient makes a daunting comparison for most fiction. Wolf’s Mouth may leave its vendettas only half-resolved, but this provides room for the emergence of two intriguing Sicilian women, one young and one old. As for the unraveling odysseys of Will and Ray, the experience must be entirely common for soldiers on foreign soil. Will’s experience, indeed, recalls a masterful non-fiction account of the war in Italy, Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis. Lewis, too, was an “FS man,” ambitious and canny, and a disturbing incident he witnessed outside Naples turns up in Foulds’s book, transposed to Palermo. That’s a novelist’s prerogative, of course, making whatever he can of his research, and what Foulds has made proves most laudable in the same way Naples ’44 did: as a harsh illumination of the broken mess that most war amounts to.
John Domini's latest book is a selection of criticism, The Sea-God's Herb; his next novel, the final in a trilogy set in Naples, will appear in 2016.