Robert Dunbar is known primarily for his novel THE PINES, a thoughtful and elegantly written example of serious horror fiction. The chilly and idiosyncratic WILLY, Dunbarís latest novel, goes beyond that earlier effort in every respect, being one of the most memorable thinking personís horror stories to appear in some time, and one of 2011ís standout publications.
Itís told in the form of a diary kept by the protagonist, a deeply troubled teen boy sent to a rural boarding school. This kidís diary, with its shaky grammar, free-form composition and numerous crossed-out words, is among the only truly convincing fictional depictions of the voice and world view of a teenager that Iíve encountered.
After around 50 pagesí worth of entries laying out the protagonistís disturbed mind-set and isolation from his fellow students, we meet Willy. As described by the protagonist, Willy is a brilliant but creepy boy who has a talent for influencing his fellows--and not always for the better! In fact, it seems that Willyís presence has a distinctly negative effect on the schoolís teachers and students, whose lives are torn apart by frequent bouts of madness, murder and, in the case of the protagonist, self-mutilation.
There are suggestions that none of this is in fact real and that Willy may not actually be alive. Being the mentally damaged individual he is, the protagonist is cagey on such matters, as he is on most everything else. He rarely explains things any more than he has to, leaving us with a lot of seemingly superfluous descriptions and occasional self-contained mini-paragraphs whose meanings are left enigmatic (example: ďI feel like Iím on fire and drowning at the same time. I never felt that way beforeĒ). To further complicate matters, toward the end a more learned narrative voice intrudes, presumably that of Willy--who itís suggested (but never confirmed) may in fact be the true protagonist.
Only a writer of unusual talent and discipline could create such an assured and impressive novel from the disjointed recollections of a frankly crazy individual. Yet Robert Dunbar has succeeded in taking seemingly undisciplined and meaningless material and weaving it into a whole thatís unerringly disciplined and meaningful, not to mention complex, eerie and peerlessly disturbing.