BOOK REVIEW ‌ Leader of the Pack 

Evan Kuhlman's Wolf Boy charms with its magical realism

Wolf Boy: A Novel [Buy Now]
Evan Kuhlman
Shaye Areheart Books
$23

When I first heard about Evan Kuhlman's debut novel, I had my doubts. Described as a "novel with graphic novel subplots," the idea was off-putting to a long-time fan of the graphic novel genre, which has fairly recently exploded onto the pop culture scene, not for the better. My assumption was that Kuhlman was jumping on the bandwagon, and the results would be disastrous.

I love it when an author proves me wrong.

Wolf Boy is everything you could ask for from a story, and more. It is one of those rare books that reminds you of every beautifully poignant moment you've ever taken for granted, one that takes you back to your childhood — the real one, with pain and bitterness and confusion and joy and surprise all wrapped up in every day, rather than that idyllic fantasy kingdom your parents believe you had.

And it takes the grief of losing someone you love, losing him shockingly and unexpectedly, and explores the raw, emotive, and radical energies that everyone close to him has to feel in order to go on living.

Stephen Harrelson is living a normal, reasonably entertaining adolescence with his somewhat dysfunctional family in 1993. It's snowy out, as it tends to be in winter in Illinois. Dad Gene is a sarcastic grump. Mom Helen stays at home and wishes she had more of a life. Little sister Crispy is obsessed with Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. And big brother Francis, sweet, devoted, and just the kind of big brother every kid should have, is driving up to Chicago with his fiancée, Jasmine, for a mycology conference — Francis has devoted his life to the study of mushrooms.

Only Francis and Jasmine don't make it to Chicago. An ice storm hits, and the car slides into the path of an oncoming truck. Jasmine, the driver, walks away thanks to the car's single airbag. Francis, however, does not.

Gene can't stop talking about what a particularly "beautiful" morning "it" was. He goes to his furniture shop and locks himself away, never touching his tools, never making a thing. He pretends he's living his regular life, but he's locked away in his own private hell, full of anger and remorse.

Helen is slowly going insane. After calling to request a copy of Francis's death certificate, she's suddenly deluged with them. More arrive every day. She crumbles under the weight of them.

Crispy falls farther into her Marky Mark fantasy world. She writes him, begging him to come and get her. She decides she must go to him.

But Stephen, who has an uncanny knack for making order out of chaos, chooses a different route to vent his grief. He begins to write stories in the vein of the comics he loves (The Amazing Spider-Man, in particular). His story hero, Kip Laredo, discovers that males in his family all have special wolf powers they grow into at adolescence. But just as Kip becomes Wolf Boy, his brother, Johnny (a.k.a. Wolf Brother), is killed in an explosion. Wolf Daddy's rage gets the better of him, and Kip's mother ... well, you'll have to read it to believe it.

Stephen recruits his funny, offbeat girlfriend, Nicole, to illustrate the comic (illustrated in real life by identical twins Brendon and Brian Fraim), and Wolf Boy takes on a life of its own, as Kip struggles with the balancing act of growing up part regular kid, part superhero.

This book is full of tragedy, but also of hope and humor. It feels real, in a way that so few books do anymore. It's not just a good read, it's a tangible experience. You know these people. Or maybe you are, or were, these people. And even though it's an impossible task for one person to save the world at large, Stephen is a great reminder of how we can make a choice to save our own private worlds, even when we're dealt a shitty hand.

Oh yeah, and the "graphic subplot"? Way to take a deplorable idea and make magic with it. Hats off to Evan Kuhlman.


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