Uninvited Books / January 2011
Reviewed by: Paul G. Bens, Jr.
A dilapidated school in the middle of nowhere. An encroaching winter. Dozens of troubled, teenaged boys, some violent and some...perhaps not. Add in an old and dying Dean of the school who’s been secreted away and an enigmatic boy named Willy — who seems to strike fear in the hearts of all the adult administrators — and you have all the makings of a classic horror/suspense piece. The question is, will the author take the clichéd route, or will he take those elements and weave them into something complex, fascinating and utterly suspenseful? Lucky for readers, Robert Dunbar, author of The Pines, The Shore and Martyrs & Monsters, is never one to take the road most travelled, and with Willy, Dunbar doesn’t disappoint, giving readers a novel that is challenging, full of dread and peopled with characters both appealing and frightening.
Shuffled from one “school” to another, an unnamed narrator is our guide, the events of the novel unfolding via entries he makes in a journal suggested by his previous therapist. Though the boy himself doesn’t understand the worth of it all, he dutifully — almost obsessively — tells his story as he finds himself at yet another facility, one as broken and out of place as he himself seems to feel. Often disjointed in tone and focus, these early entries reflect a stream of consciousness fragmented by transience and capitulation to the world around him as the boy’s attention is drawn from one thing to another at the drop of a hat. The result is a jarring narrative that keeps the reader off balance, leading one to wonder what his boy might have done and what he might yet do.
Dunbar’s dedication to the boy’s voice is unwavering, capturing the essence of a young man beaten down by life, numb to it almost, and the conceit works well. Our narrator catches only snippets of things the adults around him say and seems only to acknowledge his surrounding to the extent he needs to in order to survive. Largely, the adult supervisors and teachers are dismissive of him, looking down their noses at yet another “troubled youth.” It’s a label and attitude the narrator has not only come to expect, but one which he has begun to believe about himself. He is nothing more than an inconvenience — hardly a person at all — a case to be passed from one institution to another as he teeters on the brink of insanity.
He is assigned a room in the institution amidst whispers and a sense of fear that grips the adults, though one is never sure why. It seems that our narrator’s roommate is, perhaps, the worst of all the problem kids:
But the black lady wasn’t laughing anymore. “We can’t be putting him there,” she kept repeating. “You know what I’m saying.
Though the adults seem afraid to even whisper his name, the titular character is, no doubt, to be the young man’s roommate. But Dunbar doesn’t introduce us to Willy for quite a while, his absence going unexplained. Instead, the reader is given a chance to let their imagination run wild as they wonder what horrible thing Willy could have done to have landed here and, more importantly, what he did to deserve such a protracted absence from the school. In short, Dunbar lets us construct our own monster, indulging our voyeuristic tendencies as the narrator discovers Willy through his belongings and through the cryptic comments of the ever-present adults. By doing this, Dunbar builds a slow, methodical sense of dread, a palpable suspense that is really quite masterful. When we meet Willy, we are certain he’ll live up to every horrible thing we’ve imagined.
But Dunbar pulls the rug out from under us. When we finally meet Willy, he’s not some axe murderer or psychopath; he’s affable, fiercely intelligent and incredibly charismatic. He soon bonds with his new roommate, and Dunbar builds a remarkable relationship between the two, one reminiscent of that between James Dean’s Jim Stark and Sal Mineo’s Plato from Rebel Without a Cause. As in the cinematic classic, there’s homoeroticism here, but more important is the dynamic of two “troubled” youths, one wise enough not to believe he is the offal the adults paint him to be. As Willy shows him his intrinsic value, our narrator begins to grow beyond the labels, embracing his intelligence and wit, and the journals entries slowly become more lucid and confident, driving the narrative.
Willy is clearly a leader amongst the boys. And that, perhaps, is what puts the adults around him so ill at ease. He is their Jack Merridew, intelligent and savage at the same time. But is he dangerous because of some unspoken, violent past? Or is it because he sees through them, knows all their little secrets, and is not content to take what they say simply because they have been placed in a position of power? We surmise there is something horrible in his past — mostly from the vague comments of the teachers — but Dunbar never reveals what it is, so we’re kept off balance throughout the book.
And when Willy is suddenly sent away, is everything exactly as it seems? The boys begin to unravel without their leader, the mansion seems more decrepit, and the adults are far less balanced than they should be. Amongst it all, our narrator is haunted by the memory of Willy. Or is it the ghost of him?
“Willy?” I moved really slow down the corridor and pushed the washroom door. “Hello?” I kept my voice soft so as not to scare him. Something rustled, and I went in, blinking at the light when I hit the switch. “Willy?”
Those familiar with Dunbar’s work will not be surprised at the complexity of this novel. He takes a simple premise and imbues it with a keen literary sense. Some readers might be put off by the fragmented style of the beginning of the novel, but by page 20 the voice and emotion of the narrator will grasp them. Dunbar excels at capturing the emotion of troubled youth and not a stick of dialog feels forced or out of place. He also manages to attach us to these boys, making us root for them although we know they are likely doomed...at least some of them.
While the adults that populate the novel are less sharply drawn, this is with reason. The adults pay little mind to the boys in their charge; likewise, our narrator has little use for them, seeing as he will only know them for a very short time before circumstances change again. Under Willy’s influence, however, he becomes more attentive to their whispers. He sees their dynamics, learns a little of their secrets and the political maneuverings within the school. Slowly he begins to see that they are no better than he and the other boys. In fact, they may be worse, their lives apathetic and passionless. This too serves to ratchet up the suspense as we find ourselves wondering what is going on behind those closed doors at night.
This reviewer also appreciated that Dunbar does not spoon feed the reader. We never really learn what it is that Willy or the other boys have done to land them in the institution. Dunbar knows that sometimes what is most frightening is what we don’t know or what we only catch glimpses of, that unknown something lurking in the corner, and he uses that well. In the end, it is inconsequential what they have done. It is what they have been made to be that is important.
There are a lot of unanswered questions throughout the novel, but never is it dissatisfying or frustrating. Expertly crafted, intensely moody and infinitely suspenseful, this is horror at its best, most fulfilling. If you tend to like your suspense and horror a bit on the simplistic side, with clear-cut good guys and bad, this may not be the novel for you. However, if you prefer well-crafted suspense with a literary style that is both cryptic and creepy, there is much here to appreciate in Dunbar’s latest — one that continues to haunt long after the reader puts it down.
Purchase Willy by Robert Dunbar.