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May 11, 2006

Book Notes - Evan Kuhlman ("Wolf Boy")

Two things interested me before I even cracked the cover of Evan Kuhlman's novel, Wolf Boy. I found the idea of a graphic novel inside a work of literary fiction intriguing, and comics legend Stan Lee called the book "imaginative and compelling" in a dust cover blurb. Kuhlman tells this tale of loss with humanity and sympathy, and has created flawed characters we can all relate to (and sympathize with). His young protagonist works out his grief through the creation of a comic book (presented within the novel), and the synergy works very well.

In his own words, here is Evan Kuhlman's Book Notes submission of his novel, Wolf Boy:

In my novel and graphic novel Wolf Boy family members disintegrate and try to put themselves back together again after the cherished eldest son is killed in a) a car crash while on his way to an academic conference (the novel section), or b) in a shuttle explosion while on his way to a gathering of superheroes (the graphic novel section). The novel portion of Wolf Boy is set in 1993 in fictional Hollis, Illinois, and focuses on the lives of the Harrelson Family, parents Gene and Helen and children Stephen, 13, and Crispy, 10. Beloved Francis has just died, and they are all struggling to find their footing in a post-Francis world. One of the coping mechanisms that Crispy employs is to become obsessed with pop star Marky Mark: her beautiful brother gone, she tries to replace him with beautiful Marky. And so the first song on our playlist/soundtrack will be “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.

“It's such a good vibration/Come on come on come on/It's such a sweet sensation/
Feel it feel it.”

Here’s the remainder of the soundtrack/play list for Wolf Boy (some of these songs have been suggested by readers):

Three Dog Night: “Joy to the World”
Like Crispy, I also went though a phase (mine took place in the 1970s) where I listened to mostly weightless pop songs like “Joy to the World.” I even owned a 45 of “Chic-a-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrop. I am not proud.

Sound effect: phone ringing
There is a huge scene early on in the novel where the phone rings and Stephen answers it, not knowing that the caller is about to disclose that his brother has been killed. The sound of a ticking bomb would also be appropriate here. Lives are about to change irrevocably.

The Beatles: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
While Wolf Boy is 99.7 percent fictional, I also lost my older brother (Eric) in a car accident, in 1974. The book is dedicated to him. When Eric was in his early teens he used to clomp around the house in his Beatles boots and smack the walls in tune with whatever Beatles record was playing on the stereo.

Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone”
As he grew older Eric became interested in deeper and more socially relevant music, and what is now called acid rock. “Like a Rolling Stone” is from the classic Highway 61 Revisited, one of my brother’s favorite albums.

“How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/
Like a rolling stone?”

While fictional Stephen Harrelson would likely be unfamiliar with this song, I think the lyrics fit his mind state well, especially when he’s roaming through the woods he and his brother used to haunt, hoping to find some happy memories, if not his actual brother.

The Kinks: “Strangers”
“Holy man and holy priest/This love of life makes me weak at my knees/And when we get there make your play/ 'Cos soon I feel you're gonna carry us away/In a promised lie you made us believe/For many men there is so much grief.”

This song reminds us of the temporality of life, of the need to “make your play” while there’s still time, and it also would fit well with Stephen’s profound love of life, which, after the accident that claimed his brother, he is trying to call back.

Procol Harem: “Quite Rightly So”
“I'm sore in need of saving grace/Be kind and humor me/I'm lost amidst a sea of wheat/
Where people speak but seldom meet/And grief and laughter, strange but true/Although they die, they seldom cry.”

From another album my brother loved. For the purposes of our Wolf Boy soundtrack, this tune addresses how the Harrelson family breaks apart after the accident, each member grieving in their own lonely ways, while hungering for greater connections and more openness and honesty. The “lost amidst a sea of wheat” line connects well with the novel’s Midwestern setting.

Terry Jacks: “Seasons in the Sun”
A melancholic 45 that I used to own. Includes the lines, “We had joy we had fun we had seasons in the sun/But the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach.” Terry Jacks was a one-hit wonder. The song on the B-side was titled “Put the Bone In.”

Sound effect: wolf howls
In the novel, Stephen, before coming up with the Wolf Boy comic books, dreams of being welcomed into a wolf pack and led through a purplish woods and to his late brother.

Patti Smith: “Wing”
“I was a wing in heaven blue/Soared over the ocean/Soared over Spain/And I was free/
Needed nobody/It was beautiful/It was beautiful.”

Francis becomes a swimming ghost in the afterlife, or so Stephen believes. While he only sees his ghost brother twice, Stephen suspects that the rarity of these encounters is due to the fact that Francis is swimming elsewhere in the universe, which leads to:

The Beatles: “Across the Universe”
“Sounds of laughter shades of love are ringing through my open mind/Inciting and inviting me/Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns/It calls me on and on across the universe.”

Joni Mitchell: “River”
Late in the novel, the Harrelsons are stuck in their car at a gas station during a freak autumn blizzard. Folk songs and bluegrass music are playing on the car radio. One of the songs could be Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The song captures well the desire to escape from one’s own life and make it to the other side.

“Oh I wish I had a river/I could skate away on/I wish I had a river so long/I would teach my feet to fly.”

REM: "Everybody Hurts"
Pain and loss are universal, yet everyone experiences such life smacks differently. Gene tries sugar, booze, and sex to “calm the wailing beast,” but none of these quite do the trick. Helen briefly goes on tranquilizers, but then realizes she needs to release her tears, not inhibit them.

Neil Young: “Philadelphia”
“Sometimes I think that I know what love's all about/And when I see the light I know I'll be all right.”

This is one of the few songs that can turn me into a blithering blob of loss and sweet memories nearly every time I play it. Blast this unsettling song. The neighbors will thank you.

Soundgarden: “Black Hole Sun”
The graphic novel sections of Wolf Boy are set in futuristic and bleak Forgotten City. Hard to guess what kind of music Wolf Boy and his kind might listen to, but “Black Hole Sun” with its “the sky looks dead” line might be a strong candidate.

Tim Easton: Carry Me
“Carry me carry me/Through this cold midnight/Bury me bury me underneath your starlight.”

Late in Wolf Boy, Helen, tired of all of the work required to stay halfway sane, imagines Gene carrying her for a few minutes, allowing her to rest. She’d even allow Gene to carry her for years, Helen thinks.

Patty Griffin: “Let Him Fly”
“The second hand just waved goodbye/You know the light has left his face/But you can’t recall just where or why/So there was really nothing to it/I just went and cut right through it/I said I’m gonna let him fly.”

There comes a point in the novel and the graphic novel where Stephen/Wolf Boy has to let his dead brother go. From here forward, searching in the woods or the heavens for his lost brother may be fruitless, he’ll have to look elsewhere. Which leads to:

Toad the Wet Sprocket: “Brother”
“I find my brother in there/Deep in my heart/I find my brother in there/Hold in my arms/I love you/And if I seem too quiet now/There are no words/To tell you how I love you.”

Dar Williams: “Better Things”
A reader suggested that this song should play during the “closing credits.” Since only ten months have passed since Francis’s accident it’s too early to say how Stephen, Crispy, and their parents will fare. But there are reasons to be hopeful.

“Here's wishing you the bluest sky/And hoping something better comes tomorrow/Hoping all the verses rhyme/And the very best of choruses to/Follow all the drudge and sadness/I know that better things are on the way.”

So that’s it, the soundtrack to my novel and graphic novel Wolf Boy. Now all we need is the actual movie. (Goes and sits by the phone and waits for Hollywood to call.)

see also:

The Wolf Boy Website

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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