A 13-year-old struggles to come to terms with his brother’s death in a fiction debut that neatly incorporates elements of the graphic novel.
When Francis Harrelson, a college student, dies in a car wreck in southern Illinois in January 1993, his family is understandably heartbroken, with all members retreating into their own worlds. Helen, Francis’s mother, becomes increasingly unstable, briefly checking herself into a psychiatric ward; Gene, his father, pursues an affair; Crispy, his ten-year-old sister, ponders running away from home. Stephen, Francis’s brother and the book’s hero, not only has to manage this turmoil, he also believes that his brother’s ghost still haunts him—as does Francis’s fiancée, Jasmine. To make sense of it all, he starts channeling his grief and confusion into a comic book he creates with his girlfriend, Nicole, in which Wolf Boy (a stand-in for Stephen) and his family members battle evildoers—like the man driving the truck that hit Francis’s car. If the comic-book interludes are metaphorically obvious, they’re still a nice touch—they capture the ways in which adolescent boys fantasize, and underscore just how much Stephen has to work through. (The illustrations, moreover, by the brothers Fraim, possess all the energy of a good superhero comic.) The novel is tidily organized to track the year following Francis’s death, and that formalism is its greatest weakness. Kuhlman draws careful, exacting portraits of each member of the Harrelson family, spending real time detailing, say, Crispy’s growing crush on Marky Mark, or Gene’s mistress’s wardrobe, which drives Gene wild. But getting those elements right means the narrative itself gets less attention, and though Kuhlman’s a fine stylist with an excellent eye and ear, Stephen’s concluding revelations about his late brother feel forced and overly melodramatic.
A little too pat and familiar, but nicely drawn.