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Spotlight on: Wolf Boy by Evan Kuhlman

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Wolf Boy by Evan Kuhlman Evan Kuhlman, Wolf Boy (illustrated by Brendon and Brian Fraim)

On January 9, 1993, the Harrelson family's lives were changed forever. That was the day they got word that eldest son Francis, a budding mycologist, was killed in an auto accident in a car driven by his fiancee, Jasmine, who survived. Each Harrelson deals with grief in a different way: father Gene hides in his furniture store with the CLOSED sign on the door and considers cheating on his wife with a former employee -- their already extant marital problems are brought into sharp relief by the extra stressor of Francis's death.

Meanwhile, sister Crispy writes letters to pop star Marky Mark (of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch), asking him to come rescue her, and figuring out a way to meet up with him in the meantime; and mother Helen walks the ledge of a nervous breakdown before seeking help from a support group.

Only Stephen channels his grief for the loss of his big brother and best friend (and his visions of Francis swimming in the sky) into something creative -- a superhero comic book called The Adventures of Wolf Boy, with art by Stephen's girlfriend, Nicole Strussman. This and Stephen's other attempts to keep Francis's memory alive are saddening and joyous, making me wish I knew the boy personally.

In one of the most blazingly original bursts of creative brilliance I have seen in quite some time, first-time novelist Evan Kuhlman (his short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, among others) has combined the literary family-grief story (think Ordinary People without the downer ending) with the superhero comic in his debut, Wolf Boy. Interspersed within the story of a family's loss are panels of The Adventures of Wolf Boy. (The comic is actually illustrated by identical twins Brendon and Brian Fraim -- check out examples of their clean lines and traditional approach at Fraimworks.)

In Wolf Boy, Kuhlman combines the best parts of John Irving, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Franzen. This semi-autobiographical tale (Kuhlman lost his own brother at a young age) charms and delights; Kuhlman has managed to focus on a sad subject without making it depressing. The comic was a terrific idea, and watching how it parallels the novel's story is a wonder. But I especially admired how Kuhlman realistically portrayed the family's relationship with Jasmine following the accident -- a gradual separation followed by an almost complete cut-off, with only the smitten Stephen still in contact. One day she's practically their daughter, the next she's a pariah. It's maybe not the right way to do things, but it's the way that often goes.

I was consistently surprised by Kuhlman's choices in Wolf Boy. Not only in the imaginative format of the novel, but also in the way Kuhlman never makes the expected choices with his characters. He doesn't seem to have favorites, treating all of them with equal respect. This, in turn, causes us to root for all of them to successfully get through their struggles and come out stronger on the other side. And the ambiguous ending allows us to think that it might actually happen, if not necessarily soon.

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