In Nightwolf, we start with teenager Milo Byers. He’s already grown up, though, even if he isn’t legally an adult. Between taking care of his mom, taking care of himself and wondering what happened to his brother (who has been missing for several years) Milo doesn’t harbor illusions about chasing the American dream, or even finding success and happiness in life. He’s working as a bouncer, although he is more gentle and caring than the people who beat him regularly. He also steals cars for his boss, putting him on a potential path to prison from the outset.
There’s a fantastic atmosphere developed in this novel. It’s bleak and tense and there’s a bizarre conflict of sensations; on the one hand, the sense of impending doom and on the other hand the fear nothing will happen at all, signifying some truth about the emptiness of our existence.
Milo is a compelling character in his own right. Life has taught him hard lessons early and has imparted a wisdom that is far beyond his years that he shares with the reader page to page. Nightwolf is almost propelled forward more by philosophical insights than it is by plot. There is a plot. There are conflicts. There are challenges in life. And to dwell too much on the core plot points risks giving some aspects of the novel away, so I’m not going to do it. Just trust me that there’s a colorful cast of characters and a lot of stuff going on.
“This is the time, I thought. If we were ever to change, it would have to be now. We were worn down and opened up and ready to accept whatever the wind blew at us. In the cold air, with reason surrounding us and receding from our grip, it was easy to believe we could stay that way forever.”
The author takes us on a journey through some blood-stained back allies, down some dangerous streets, through a rivalry that threatens to destroy lives, and confronts us with the question of what we will accept and what we will ignore day to day. Milo has to decide who he will stand with and what he will stand for. That isn’t an easy thing for a kid whose mom isn’t quite all there, whose dad has never been around and whose brother is missing. In his own way, in spite of his disillusionment, Milo is still holding on to a youthful fantasy when he convinces himself that his missing brother is the Nightwolf. His desire to prove that drives him on to the resolution, because while there are some things he doesn’t seem to really want to know the truth about, there are other questions he isn’t willing to leave unanswered. For a guy who has already dealt with a lot of disappointment in his life will there be answers and resolution? Or will the ultimate life lesson for Milo be that life is a series of eternal disappointments, that our questions are rarely answered and our problems rarely solved?
Many of these characters sound wise beyond their years and place in life. I think it helps to view these kids as being on the edge of the streets. They’re part of some shady groups and they’re being pulled down into a world that holds nothing with longevity and promise for them. They must decide if they’ll fall in or if they’ll rise above the easy path. And perhaps living on the sharp edge of futility is what it takes to see things more clearly than the average person does. Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing what’s next from Willie Davis. I spent a lot of time processing this book while I was reading it and after the last page. That is meant as a compliment. The best books are memorable. They work on us like sandpaper, make us process things, challenge our rough edges. They make us think, and that’s what Nightwolf did for me.
There are two primary crimes a novel can commit. One is to fail to entertain/engage (lack of believability, poor world-building, technical mistakes and poor plotting all affect this). The other is to be forgettable. Nightwolf engages the reader the whole way through and is memorable. It’s also hard to talk about without giving things away so while I’m avoiding spoilers in my review, bear in mind that this is a top notch offering from a writer who has tons of promise, who really knows how to build a colorful and gritty world where I’m not sure I’d want to live, but that accurately reflects the mean streets many youth today must navigate.
There’s something about Nightwolf that reminded me of Sang Pak’s Wait Until Twilight. I mean that as quite a compliment, since that’s a novel I reviewed 9 years ago and still remember reading. While I’ve already lost track of some the titles of works I read in June and July and earlier this year, it’s been weeks since I finished Nightwolf and I suspect Milo Byers will be haunting my memories a decade from now, the same way Pak’s novel does.
Check out our interview with Willie Davis