Wolf at the Door: A Novel

Wolf at the Door: A Novel

by John Yount

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Wolf at the Door: A Novel by John Yount

The stunning debut of a writer hailed by Robert Penn Warren as “that very rare thing, the born novelist”

He had lost the thread of his life, and he couldn’t pretend any longer that he hadn’t.

As soon as Thomas Rapidan thinks it, he knows it is true. The question is, what to do about it? John Yount’s slim, potent first novel is the story of a troubled young man deciding whether to live or die.

Tom’s wife, Maggie, knows that he does not love her. She pays his tuition at the North Carolina university they attend together, but he shows no interest in her or in his classes—only in drinking himself into a stupor and reminiscing about his poor West Virginia upbringing and his violent father.

When Tom puts Maggie on a plane home to visit her parents, he is free to indulge his darkest, most cynical desires. He gets drunk, picks a fight in a bar, and edges closer and closer to the abyss. But before he can take the final step, Tom meets a remarkable girl in an unlikely place and discovers that she just might be able to give him the one thing no one else can—forgiveness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497669734
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 10/14/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 624 KB

About the Author

John Yount is the author of five critically acclaimed novels: Wolf at the DoorThe Trapper’s Last Shot, Hardcastle, Toots in Solitude, and Thief of Dreams. A longtime professor at the University of New Hampshire, he has been the recipient of grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. According to John Irving, Yount is “a completely original voice in contemporary American fiction.”

Read an Excerpt

Wolf at the Door

A Novel

By John Yount


Copyright © 1967 John Yount
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-6973-4


One January morning Thomas Rapidan was walking down the windy side of the street. The wind was cold and gusty and gave him erratic shoves down the sidewalk, but he did not shiver or hunch his shoulders against it. It whistled and woofed in his big ears; it stirred his hair, lifting it up in little tufts and exposing his scalp to the cold, but he didn't notice. He was taking long farmer's strides, and under his arm there was a bottle of bourbon wrapped in brown paper.

On his left, scattered among the bare trees, rose the damp brick buildings of Briston University, where he was a student. A few moments before, ten windy chimes had been tossed from the tower of the administration building. He knew his wife would be on her coffee break, talking in the kitchen of the Wesley Foundation with Iona, the colored cook. There would be three or four theology students there too, come for a free cup of coffee. They were vestiges from another time, they and their old and neglected theology buildings, a time when the university was a church school in the service of God. He could picture them standing around the kitchen, talking about church politics, youth groups, some technicality in the synoptic Gospels; all carefully not noticing his wife's stylish tight skirt and pretty legs. There was always something a little wrong with theology students—their hair was too carefully combed, their shoes too shiny, their shirts too stiff, and they almost always had acne. He laughed to himself, thinking about sticking his head in the kitchen door, making a big-eyed, stupidly smiling face and then bounding in to do a minute or two of the old soft shoe. And when he had finished his dance and given them a bow, with the big smile still on his face, he'd whip out a knife and cut his throat from ear to ear. Imagining the looks on their faces, Thomas Rapidan staggered down the sidewalk, convulsed with laughter; it might even make one of those anemic motherfuckers forget to comb his hair for a day. He laughed until he reached the corner of Twenty-first and Natchez Trace, where the wind bullied him and drove the humor out. He blinked and looked around to see where he was. He shivered and wiggled his shoulders and looked up at the low gray sky. Two dirty, half-frozen city pigeons flared out from behind the top of a building, riding the wind, scaling it up and down, cupping their wings and leaning on it. One tried to light on the roof of the library across the street, but the wind made it stagger and flutter to keep from being blown over on its can. It took off again and joined the other one, and both were blown away like leaves. He watched for a while, hoping to see them again. If I see them again, it will be all right, he told himself. But he didn't know what he wanted to be all right. Then he knew he meant his life—his life would be all right if he saw them again. He waited and watched the sky, but the pigeons didn't come back, and an empty, desolate feeling began to creep around inside him. The wind was whipping his overcoat about his legs.

"To hell with it," he said, and he started across the street. It was a bad bargain anyway. Why would they come back against the wind? They wouldn't. He had purposely framed himself. At the curb he stubbed his toe and stumbled, and the package slipped from under his arm. It made a crack like a cap pistol, and the round brown package flattened against the pavement in a tea-colored pool. There now, see what you caused, he told himself. He knelt to it, and the bouquet cut off his breath and made his eyes water. He sucked his teeth and picked at a corner of the package with his thumb and forefinger, and the paper came apart, trailing broken glass on the pavement. He watched little trickles of bourbon probe the gutter. The bottle was gone and nothing could be done about it, and he hadn't enough money to buy another. He stood up and stepped into the sheltered doorway of a clothing store to think. He had planned to take his bottle home and drink it slowly and thoughtfully. He felt it would help him concentrate. He had lost the thread of his life, and he couldn't pretend any longer that he hadn't. You couldn't do a dance if you had no music. All right, all right, he told himself. All right then, there are two alternatives: one is to live; the other is to die. But he knew it was no good, because before he could do either, he had to have a reason, and he could fashion no trap to catch himself a reason

Thomas Rapidan saw a thin, ghostly reflection of himself in the window of the clothing store. He saw that on his face there was a vague, stunned smile like the smile on the face of a comic hero in the movies who has just had a bottle broken over his head and is sinking slowly to the floor, hearing birds sing. He began to laugh at himself, and his image laughed too and mocked him, and he swung abruptly out of the doorway and into the wind, saying to himself, I'll kill you, you son of a bitch.


Maggie saw him pass her window for the second time. He was bent at the waist, head tilted forward, and his strides were long and determined, as if he had made up his mind to walk around the world. All his movements were somehow intemperate. And if he were in motion, she could pick him out of any crowd or recognize him at any distance. But watching him walk past, she felt she didn't know his name. It was like seeing someone whose face was very familiar, whose mannerisms were perfectly remembered—someone she knew she knew, but couldn't quite place.

They had been married for over a year, and every day she felt a little less like a wife. "Marriage" had become an abstract word; she didn't know what people meant when they said it. And the sight of Tom frightened her. She had grown very good at self-deception, but never quite good enough. And lately, lying to herself cost so much energy that she was always tired, almost ill.

"Looks like a hound dog on the trail of something," said Pete Whitborne, who had come up behind her, balancing his full cup of coffee carefully. He sat down on the edge of the desk and smiled at her.

"I don't think he knows where he's going; he was walking in the other direction just a minute ago." She looked at him only a moment. His blue eyes were a little startling and seemed always to ask her to look in them a little longer than she cared to. When she looked away she could feel them follow her. She read over the stencil in her typewriter and rested her fingers on the keys.

"Well, he knows where he doesn't want to go. I haven't seen him in Medieval Philosophy in weeks." Pete took a sip of his coffee and burned his tongue. "Has he thrown in the towel?"

"I don't know," Maggie said. "There's no telling what he might be planning to throw away." What she said shocked her a little; she hadn't really meant to admit that much. She felt she should look at Pete and laugh, but she was afraid his eyes wouldn't let her go and she would have to say even more. She tried a smile out on her face, but it just didn't fit, and she looked at her lap.

Pete fidgeted. "Well, old Tom is a metaphysician and the world is notoriously hard on metaphysicians," he said, thinking, Tom is a bastard and notoriously hard on the world. Rabid Rapidan, he had named him. He watched Maggie, thinking how easy it would be to be good to her.

"That's what I think too," Maggie said. But she didn't think that. She didn't really know what a metaphysician was, unless it was somebody who worried about God, and somebody who worried about God was a theologian. What she felt was that Tom didn't love her, and the feeling followed her around like dread. That was the only problem. That was the one and only problem there was.

Pete looked at her and barely suppressed a groan—her big yellow-green eyes, and her mouth with that lovely expression at the corners of it. But it wasn't an expression; it was a promise of an expression, one that would be exquisitely ingenuous on the delicate curve of her lips. It was impossible for him to look at her and take Tom or any of his problems seriously, but he tried. After all, Tom was a friend. He tried to hold that in his mind, but he couldn't work up any conviction. His friendship with Tom had grown stale, and though they had once taken great pleasure in each other, something, some competition perhaps, had begun to eat away at it; perhaps in their long hours of talking—all night sometimes—he had just talked it all out, and realized he had nothing more to say to Tom, or maybe he had told Tom too many lies, or too much truth, but something had gone wrong, and he didn't seem to trust him any longer. "Look at me, Maggie," he said. It disgusted him that his voice was hoarse and had cracked. When she looked up, he lost his voice completely. He cleared his throat. "Let me talk to him," he said.

Maggie shook her head. "It would make him mad if you talked to him," she said.

"What do you mean? I knew him before I knew you. We're old friends; you know that. We've spent many a dark night of the soul together,"

he said. He had meant to laugh, but she was rubbing her eyes dry with her fists, which looked pitifully small and childlike. Pete reached into his hip pocket for his handkerchief but found that it was dirty and hid it away quickly. He couldn't help it; he looked at her with a kind of greed, thinking how much he'd like to make love to her when she was crying. He cleared his throat again. "Come on, Maggie," he said. "Hey, don't do that. Let me talk to him. I know things about him you don't know. Hell, I know things about him he doesn't know about himself."

"I don't know what's wrong," Maggie said. "Sometimes I think I know. Sometimes I think I know what I've done. I know I've done something to him."

"No you haven't. You haven't done anything to him," Pete said. He wanted to get off the desk and put his arms around her, but he was afraid it would go wrong. He had a beautiful ability to do stupid, awkward things. He'd had it all his life. He looked at her and tried to decide what to do. She was sitting, so he'd have to kneel, and if he knelt, he knew his goddamn knees would pop. They had always made popping, snapping noises when he knelt, and that wouldn't be any good. Besides, she had her hands over her face, and her arms were shielding her breasts. It would be a pretty damned boney embrace with her elbows in the way like that. But he ached to try.

"I'm sorry," Maggie said. She wiped her face with the palms of her hands. "Please don't talk to Tom."

She looked at him and gave him a funny smile, with her lips pressed tightly together, her chin crinkled and the corners of her mouth turned down. Now! he told himself, but he couldn't get off the desk.

"I don't know what's wrong," she said, "but I don't want it to get any worse."

"I won't make it worse, believe me." He winked at her, but he felt it was a silly-looking wink. "Let me see if I can't make him behave." Suddenly, feeling very embarrassed with himself, he got off the desk and hurried clumsily out of the room. He seemed to have some difficulty with his feet; they were awkward and out of rhythm, and he damned near fell at the door. I botched it, he was thinking. He didn't know how he had botched it, or exactly what he had botched, but by the time he'd gotten through the lobby to the heavy front door of the building he was so mad he kicked it open. He stepped out into the wind, thinking that it must be some sort of natural law that the wrong people marry the wrong people always. He'd go see what he could do, and he'd try to be nice, and he'd try to be objective, but he could think what he pleased, and what he thought was that Tom just wasn't up to the likes of Maggie. He was a philistine—Rabid Rapidan, a combination of all the greasy races on the earth.

When Pete had gone, Maggie began to worry for fear she had initiated something she couldn't control. She was afraid to imagine what Tom might do. She knew Pete couldn't really help; he could only make things worse. She wanted to run after Pete and plead with him not to talk to Tom, but she knew it was too late for that; anything she said would make her sound more desperate and afraid and make Pete more determined to talk to Tom. She knew she'd done a little acting with Pete, just a little to earn sympathy; she needed some sympathy. But that didn't excuse the acting. Always, no matter what the situation, she was able to rise a little above herself and refine what she did and said. She wondered if always she didn't act just a little, if always she wasn't just a little dishonest. She bit her lip until it made her wince, thinking that even if she were to be raped, she'd be able to manage some sort of acting so that she'd be raped nicely.


Tom had pulled a heavy overstuffed chair close enough to the French doors to be able to prop his feet up on them, and he was watching a fine cold rain fall. On his right arm there was a big purple hematoma partially covered by a Band-Aid. He had sold a pint of blood to the Red Cross blood bank for five dollars. His blood type was "O" positive, the most common and cheapest kind, but it had bought him a bottle of bourbon, and he had sixty cents left over. He had just begun to drink, and the bourbon lay in his stomach with a weightless heat. Cold breezes filtered through the cracks around the French doors and brought him the smell of wet wood, which mingled with the musty smell of his clothes, damp from his walk home. There was one light on in the living room behind him, and the only sounds were the occasional passing hiss of tires on the wet pavement below and the deadening, almost nonsound of the fine winter rain. He bent his arm to raise the glass of whiskey to his lips, and his damp clothes clung and restricted his movements. He felt one end of the Band-Aid break loose, and his arm gave him a little pain where the bored Red Cross nurse had skewered his vein and the big tendon behind it.

I am twenty-two; I am a man, he thought. I'll grow no more; this is it. This is all there is to be of me. He was conscious of the weight and length of his limbs—so many pounds of flesh—a side of meat capable of motion. He drank again, and the whiskey burned his gums and lit a fire in his stomach. His mind, too, felt heavy, a heavy thing that would not move to sort out anything important about Thomas Rapidan. But there were important things he had to find out about himself before he died. There must be, he reasoned. He tried to remember a time when things were clean and clear and understandable.

He remembered how, when he was little, he used to go with his father to the store. It was a long walk from their farm, but that only made it better. He remembered it the way it was in the early fall. When the sun had been hot during the day, the tar on the blacktop road would melt and stick to the bottom of his feet, and occasionally a piece of gravel would stick to one foot or the other, and he would have to hop along and pick it off and then run to catch up with his father again. Someone would be chopping wood somewhere, a satisfying whapping sound that could come from a long way off. A cow would be bawling. And down at Daltey's store, where he and his father would be going to get some staples, the smoke would be rising almost straight up from the chimney in the still, clear air.

The store was always cool and dark, and if by some chance his father should give him a nickel to spend, he would always come away feeling cheated because what he bought was always less than what he wanted, and what he wanted, though he didn't know it, was the old and pungent atmosphere of that place. He wanted the combined smells of candy and soda pop, and even the cool, watery, cankered smell of the cooler where the soda pop was kept. He wanted the smell of saddles and harnesses, of tobacco chewed and spat on the stove, where it sizzled and steamed, the smells of feed and fertilizer that drifted in from the feed room, combined with the smells of cow and horse dung tracked in on the feet of farmers, mingled with the odors of new guns and used ones, the close sweet smell of the yellow flypaper spiraling down from the ceiling; he wanted it all, and he'd hold the nickel so fiercely that his palm would sweat, but what he bought was only a soda pop, or a piece of candy, and as soon as he had taken the first bite or sip he knew it was not the right thing; it wasn't what he wanted at all.


Excerpted from Wolf at the Door by John Yount. Copyright © 1967 John Yount. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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