This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
I am a sucker for improvised families in fiction. Vagrants who have each other’s backs, college kids who celebrate the holidays together instead of going home even though none of them can cook, twentysomethings surviving on ramen and loyalty and diminishing hope, survivors who band together and swear their strength to their weakest members. In Kirk Lynn’s debut novel Rules for Werewolves we are shown a family of outcasts from normal life, and I was entranced with their freedoms and their failures. This ragamuffin assemblage is made up of individuals from their teens through early thirties, and they have given up (or been given up by) American society. They occupy homes that have been foreclosed or whose owners are on extended vacations, and they steal and pillage what they need (or want) without remorse. They mostly look out for each other, though abuse and betrayal infect the group as well. They are more pack than family. They dub themselves werewolves, and they’re as charming as they are terrifying.
The pack moves from house to house, taking precautions to avoid getting caught by neighbors or the police. When they’ve used up a house’s resources or raised suspicions in the neighborhood they move on. When the group finds the spacious home of a family on vacation for a month the sudden glut of luxury fractures the group. Also, there is a gun safe, and they find the combination. Things get dark quickly. The savagery of the group moves from punk freedom to sociopathic violence. The reader must continually wrestle with the appeal of this lifestyle and the ad hoc family at its core on one side and the criminality and abusive violence on the other. Lynn maintains this emotional tension throughout.
While point-of-view moves among the pack members throughout the book, we primarily explore the group through the eyes of Bobert, a new member. Bobert (his real name is Robert and he hates his nickname) is seventeen and has run away from home, leaving behind his fifteen-year-old brother, his mother, and his abusive stepdad. He is taken in by the werewolves and sojourns with them for a time until he is kicked out by the pack’s self-elected alpha male, Malcolm, for a small infraction against the group’s rules. After a month he receives a post card from the group telling him where they are and inviting him to return. His little brother begs to come with him and they set off to rejoin the pack. Vicious though it sometimes is, the pack is their only shot at family.
Remarkably the story is told entirely through dialogue. With the exception of a few brief chapters in which different members of the pack narrate their experience of this lifestyle (these are their own form of dialogue, in their way, with the reader) the entire word count of the book is dialogue. There are a few spots where this gets confusing, but the payoff is worth it. That Lynn manages to relate this entire complex story with its converging lines of action and its multiple developed characters entirely through conversation is quite an achievement. It also lends a terrific suspense to a few of the climactic scenes as we are only able to derive and assemble what’s happening through the characters’ own words to each other.
“It seems like the only way to escape a bunch of freaks is to become normal. I don’t know how to get there, but I feel like I’m starting to want normal things. I look at an alarm clock and it seems like a poem about desire; there are people that want to get up at a certain hour so that they can go get something. A cup of pens next to the phone almost broke my heart the other day: Who’s calling? What do they have to say that’s so important you have to write it down? And I can’t even look at picture frames.” – page 170
The book’s final act in which Bobert and his brother, Timothy, set out to find the werewolves is terrific in its tension, emotional resonance, and frightful but keen logic. The climactic scene takes place in the most unlikely setting–a quiet country farm house occupied by an elderly widow who is not so naive as she seems–and is one of the most delicious scenes of fiction I’ve read all year. This portion of the book edges into rural noir without falling trap to any of that genre’s rapidly tiring tropes. I can’t ruin the scene for you here by describing it, but when I finished it all I could do was nod in satisfaction.
Rules for Werewolves moves along at a dizzying pace, but never rushes, never chooses action over character or meaning. When there is violence, it has been earned by the narrative. The book is a truly unique novel about a group of individuals who love and hate with equal ferocity. It would be hard to say which is more dangerous to them and those around them.