This novel, set in the early 1990’s, opens with the death of Francis Harrelson. Or, rather, it opens just after the death of Francis Harrelson, who dies in a car crash one snowy night on his way back to college after winter break. The following 300 or so pages focus on the four remaining members of the family and how they make those first difficult steps towards recovery.
Each one of them deals with the loss of Francis in their own special way. Mom, who looked to Francis as her closest friend, has trouble dealing with the anger. She eventually becomes violent after a computer error causes the county to send her multiple copies of her son’s death notice. The father retreats to his job at his handmade furniture store and has an affair with his accountant. Little sister Crispy dives headfirst into an obsession with Marky Mark. Yes, of the Funky Bunch. Although just a little girl her obsession drives her to run away from home on her bicycle with hopes of meeting him in person at a concert several hundred miles away, thinking he’ll not only fall in love with her but take her away from all the difficulties at home.
And then there’s Stephen, who is the main character of this story if there is one. Smart, athletic, confident---Francis was the pinnacle of older brothers and, naturally, Stephen idolized him. After his brother died Stephen became angry with everyone and everything. Angry at the driver who killed Francis, angry his parents for not being able to stop it, and even angry at God for letting his brother die when he still had so much life to live. The characters are all well developed, especially Stephen and Crispy. Kuhlman has a real knack for conveying the odd mixture of intelligence and confusion kids so often have. The adults sometimes come off a little more as types, but there involvement in the story is much smaller so it didn’t bother me particularly.
About 1/3 into the story, Stephen’s mother sends him to talk to the town minister to help get out his feelings. The minister counsels young Stephen to find a creative outlet for his feelings. Being a kid just entering the confusing life of a teenager, Stephen picks an art form he knows and loves: comic books. He develops some wild stories about a teenager named Wolfboy who can turn into a werewolf and uses his powers to fight crime throughout the universe. After getting the first couple of tales scripted out he convinces his talented girlfriend Nicole (who I would have been madly in love with as a teen) into doing the artwork. They work together, create a few issues and even sell some through the local bookstore. Kuhlman includes a few of their strips as the main gimmick or hook of the novel.
I give Kuhlman credit for developing comic book storylines that are both thoughtful and funny; the comic book tales included are an odd pastiche of ideas borrowed from comics writers like Paul Chadwick (Concrete) and Kurt Busiek (Astro City) who recreate the superhero genre with a light touch of indie flair. The artwork done by Brendan and Brian Fraim is all black and white, its hard lines with dramatic frames and poses making a link with superhero comics done in the late 80’s and early 90’s (pre-Todd MacFarlane, for fellow comics geeks). Which makes sense, because it’s the style both Stephen and Nicole would have grown up with and known.
As the comic book part of the novel progresses it becomes an obvious mirror for Stephen’s own life. Wolfboy loses his own brother and faces many of the same feelings and frustrations Stephen feels. At one point Wolfboy questions God and finds that God is likewise torn apart with anguish of his own so severely he can’t help anyone on Earth. Wolfboy’s mother, who we find out is really an android, is overwhelmed by the loss of her son and the pain causes her circuitry to short out. The reference to Stephen’s own mother becomes increasingly obvious as the main story continues. This is the real magic of the book. While the inclusion of comics in his novel may seem gimmicky on the surface but the way Kuhlman uses the gimmick proves very effective and moving. By treating comics as serious artform, albeit in a fun way, Kuhlman shows us the power of the creative process and how it can help us not just get though the painful moments of life but also reach some level of understanding.
The one real failing of the book is that I wanted more. Multiple viewpoints and only getting to see the family for about a year’s time only lets Kuhlman get so deep into the powerful issues he’s digging into. The novel could have been more powerful if it focused more on Stephen and didn’t include the distractions of the other characters. But by the end we do get a sense that Harrelsons, and Stephen in particular, will not just be moving on but will find a way to learn from Francis’s death to better themselves. What we see is fabulous; it’s just unfortunate that we don’t get to see the journey continue a little further.