by Robert Dunbar
Uninvited Books (2011)
With a title like "Willy," it's really easy to tap into my inner frat boy. And lord knows I blurted out, "can't wait to get my hands on Robert Dunbar's Willy well beyond the joke's expiration date. So, now that I've finally gotten round to reading this novel, it's time to get serious and offer my opinion on Robert's latest work.
Willy is not horror literature in the way most of us consider the genre, but it is most certainly dark fiction--very dark. The book starts in a strange fashion, and as the first few pages progress it becomes clear this is a story told by an adolescent boy as he writes in a journal, in the dark, on his way to his new school. It's a school for boys that winds up feeling like the land of misfit toys. All of the boys either have emotional issues or are downright crazy, and the same goes for some of the teachers, too.
At no point in the novel do I recall seeing the boy's name, which seems fair considering the book is in his own words, and who among us writes down our name in our diaries?
The boy's thoughts drift as he recounts his days, even writing things down as they happen, which gives the pace of the story a harried, through-the-keyhole ambiance, especially through the first half of the book. In a new school, surrounding by students and teachers who either confuse him or irritate him, the boy tries to keep to himself most of the time, but still manages to incur derision from just about everyone--until he meets his roommate Willy.
Willy has an aura about him, inspiring either fear or deference from the other boys in school--sometimes both--and as the boy writes in his journal, it seems Willy takes him under his wing. Then, some aspects of life at the school become easier for him. He has friends, he shows an aptitude in some classes, his latent love of poetry starts to shine through, and the shadows in the woods seem far less imposing. But, other things take a darker turn, as the principal holds a disdain towards Willy and the boy's friendship. This is where subtle hints of homo-eroticism start to seep out from the pages. Nothing is admitted outright, except for the boy's growing devotion to Willy, and a willingness to do whatever he can to remain in the enigmatic boy's life.
The novel was a hard one to get into for me, as the writing style was the antithesis of a hook--more like a bramble bush--and challenged me to read, an unspoken promise that things would become clearer, the deeper into this boy's mind I delved. At times the narrative feels like a tightrope, never knowing which way the boy's psyche might tip and fall, or if he might actually come out at the end unscathed, or at least intact. It's the kind of book that requires more than a day or so upon finishing to really appreciate. Even after you're done, the words will still creep up on you, like the things just out of sight in the woods where the boy wanders.
Willy is a far cry from Robert's debut novel, The Pines, which was outright horror. This novel is the personification of sinister subtlety. A few passages feel laborious, but the work as a whole is masterful.