(Reviewed by Tony Ross JUN 4, 2006)
"Stephen fell back onto the bed and let loose his tears. Francis had wanted to save the world from death but died before he could even begin his research. An now he was swimming in the sky and in pools and in bathtubs, seeking his saving water, trying to resurrect himself like fairy rings can so he could come home and continue his important work. A drop? A gallon? An ocean? How much would it take to restore Francis?"
Losing any family member in an auto accident would be terrible, but losing the big brother you've idolized for all of your thirteen years is impossible to conceptualize. The task of coming to terms with such a loss is what faces the protagonist of Kuhlman's debut novel, set in early '90s Illinois. The book follows the Harrelson family as they struggle to keep living in the wake of the their golden-child Francis' death at age 19. The bulk of the story revolves around Stephen, an engagingly clever and imaginative 13-year-old, although ample time is given to 9-year-old Crispy, their parents Gene and Helen, Stephen's next-door neighbor girlfriend Nicole, and Francis' college girlfriend. While the temptation must have been strong to concentrate on Stephen and his story, it's greatly to Kuhlman's credit that he's able to take us into the heads of all these other characters and come to care about each and every one.
As with so many families subject to such tragedy, the four remaining members cope by drifting apart into their own worlds. The barely communicating parents start sleeping in separate bedrooms. Ever-distant Gene spends more and more time sitting in his furniture shop with the blinds down and the "Closed" sign on the door. Meanwhile, Helen robotically goes through the motions of life until driven to a satisfying act of violence which leads to some long-overdue introspection. Crispy retreats into television and fantasies of being swept away by Mark Wahlberg (at that time he was a preteen idol known for his awful band and his Calvin Klein abs, I mean ads).
However, it's Stephen we spend the most time with, as he has visions of his brother over the course of the year and tries to understand why he died. His main outlet is a quasi-autobiographical superhero comic-book he writes, Nicole illustrates, and they self-publish together. In what might be considered a gimmick (not by me, however), parts of these comic books appear in the novel, adding another layer to the storytelling and providing a particularly effective window into Stephen's grief.
In general, I tend to stay away from novels and films about tragedy and dysfunctional families. There are enough tough things to deal with in our own lives that I'm not particularly keen to use leisure time to grapple with fictional representations of even more. However, this is one of the few such works I can wholeheartedly recommend. Yes, it's very sad to see this family slowly fall apart, and the parents are especially painful figures to follow.
But it's also hard not to root for Stephen to make it though the hard times and realize happiness with Nicole. There's a lot of gentle humor and sweetness that never gets cloying, and Kuhlman's simple, straightforward prose sets just the right tone. A very solid first novel about a very tough topic, skillfully handled. If you like Mark Jude Poirier, John McNally, or Tom Perrotta, check this out.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Wolf Boy at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Wolf Boy (April 2006)
For Younger Readers:
- The Last Invisible Boy (October 2008)
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- Backstory for Wolf Boy
- Trashotron review of Wolf Boy (scroll down to 5-3-06 entry)
- SilverBullet review of Wolf Boy
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About the Author:
Evan Kuhlman was a reporter and before that a resturant manager.
Kuhlman’s stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salt Hill, The Madison Review, Third Coast, and The Vincent Brothers Review. He is the winner of the Short-Story Award for New Writers and several journalism prizes.
He has lived in California, Pennsylvania and New York State and now lives in Ohio.
Brendon and Brian Fraim are identical twin illustrators and are best known for their clean line style in the Knights of the Dinner Table: Illustrated comic book. Visit them at brosfraim.com.