Then I tumbled over a stiff knob of root that twisted like tree guts. green green wet deep taste green and a little red Slow to get up. Twigs and dead grass stuck to me, but I like to feel them on my skin, the needles, in the palms of my hands, like I’m not just myself but part of ithe woods. Kneeling there, it felt like I was thanking them for Willy.
In Robert Dunbar’s WILLY, passage after passage is worthy of note. In some sections, one senses a deliberate choice made for every word—a remarkable feat, given it is written as fourteen-year-old’s journal, complete with spelling errors. WILLY drips with atmosphere and tension.
Dunbar’s protagonist is a troubled boy newly arrived at yet another reform school or a ‘dump’ as Willy calls it, a dump for all the kids no one wants to deal with anymore. He’s been abandoned and beaten down for so long he’s forgotten anything else. Until he meets his roommate, Willy, and is taken under his wing.
Willy seems to all but run the school, battling its warped teachers, leading its damaged pupils, despite bouts of some mysterious illness. The teachers’ hate and fear of him is palpable. And yet, the boys love Willy. He is kind to the MC, protecting him, transforming him. But there is something sinister about Willy. He sees, he knows, too much. He is too aware.
“You don’t know what you are. You’re lost in yourself and can’t always be. Would be a tragedy. Yes? No? Don’t nod like that. You don’t understand. Are you even awake enough to hear? It would be a tragedy because you feel, and you can’t imagine how rare that is, not yet. But you could. Be strong. If you can survive long enough.”
So Willy tells the protagonist. In Willy’s world, survival is not guaranteed.
Dunbar layers the plot with depth and subtlety. The MC is an unreliable narrator with an imperfect memory and a distinct lack of mental stability. He is damaged and desperate for love. His attachment to Willy borders on frantic. To inhabit his reality is intoxicating. And creepy.
The intimacy between Willy and the protagonist is delicately displayed, never feeling heavy-handed—the hesitations, the tests of loyalty, of love are right. The narrator’s self-expression gradually matures, as Willy draws him out of his shell.
Novels written in the format of a character’s journal can be problematic. There is the danger of the narrator knowing too much, or relaying information in a way that kills the tension, whether through a disbelief the character would write something a particular way, or simply losing the immediacy of events. Dunbar pulls it off. I never felt manipulated as details were revealed, as characters showed their colors. Dunbar leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. If you only like unambiguous endings, WILLY isn’t for you.
I won’t give anymore away. This is my introduction to Robert Dunbar’s work, and I cannot recommend it enough. I can’t help but be impressed by the balance between intense emotion and the dislocation of reality.