RULES FOR WEREWOLVES
by Kirk Lynn
Published in 2015 by Melville House
Reviewed by Bradley P. Wilson
I’ve been a fan of Kirk Lynn’s playwriting for a couple of decades. And after reading his gaunt debut novel, Rules for Werewolves (Melville House, 2015), I’m pleased to report I’m a fan of his novel writing too. Relying almost exclusively on dialog, Lynn’s cast of homeless scavengers moves as an unruly pack through the shadows of a contemporary suburban landscape, taking what it needs from a world that only suspects its presence. But this group of outsiders is tiring of living off the scraps. Its members are learning to transform themselves, perhaps physically as well as mentally. This pack is coalescing, discovering a taste for the hunt.
If you like things neat and tidy and clearly spelled out, then this book might prove frustrating. Rules for Werewolves trusts us to fill in a lot for ourselves. It challenges us to actively collaborate in the story’s creation. There are hardly any character or setting descriptions, and there are no dialog tags. Much of the time the reader is confronted with non-ascribed, often confusing, chatter. It really does get to feel like standing in a pack of excited dogs. But Lynn breaks up his “pack chapters” with strategically placed monologues that provide backstory and motivation for the major characters. He also uses detailed chapter titles to give the reader just enough context. Like this one: “Malcolm drags everybody down to the basement to show off his discovery before they all go to bed, except for Tanya and Malcolm, who stay behind to discuss it, but not like you think.”
Malcolm and Tanya are the lead werewolves. As the pack’s alphas, they spend a lot of their time and energy simply staying in power. Not to mention jockeying with each other on a peer to peer level.
Malcolm quickly establishes himself as the main antagonist to the seventeen year old hero Bobert. (That’s not a typo) At first, I wasn’t completely convinced Bobert was the protagonist because Malcolm dominates the opening chapters so thoroughly. And other characters pose stronger threats to his power. But Bobert does finally rally and stand up to his erratic pack leader.
Which is good, because Rules for Werewolves needs the entry point that a traditional hero provides. Without it Lynn’s choice to immerse us in the pack’s collective mindset might be too much. For example, while I came to agree with Lynn’s decision to leave out the dialog tags, it made me work hard to keep up. It was a distraction until I made the choice to give in and join the pack, to stop caring about who was saying what. I imagine some readers might choose otherwise. In other words, it’s a high risk novel.
This doesn’t surprise you if you know Lynn’s theater work. He’s always been a risk taker. And you know to trust him no matter what his writing asks you to do. Because it’s always worth it in the end.
Rules for Werewolves follows this precedent. It may require a little more focus and effort to keep up with this pack of human predators, to be jostled and nipped by them for so long, to let yourself feel transformed into something you recognize but don’t want to be. But it’s worth it. Pick up a copy of Kirk Lynn’s debut novel. How else can you decide whether or not Bobert really does change into a werewolf?
Bradley P. Wilson is much better at reading and editing other people’s novels than he is at writing his own. But he keeps trying. He’s a freelance fiction editor and ghost writer with Yellow Bird Editors and Greenleaf Book Group in Austin, TX. He’s also a stagehand. You can read his blog at bradleypwilsonliterary.com.