Willie Davis’s debut novel Nightwolf, published in July from 7.13 Books, moves fluidly through the streets of Lexington, Kentucky and explores the ties of family and place and friends, loss, memory, and longing, as well as anything written this past year. That’s a lot for a first-time novelist to take on, but Davis seems to ease through it with little problem. However, a novel this tight and effective doesn’t happen easily. To say that would take away from Davis’s huge accomplishment.
Nightwolf reads like a slow fever dream in some sections and in others there is a starkness to the realism that hits the reader with a near-tangible force. Davis’s greatest craft achievement in this book is the way he threads these two literary worlds together. Though it may in fact be his second greatest achievement. The first would be the characters he has created.
Set plot aside for the moment. Nearly everything that pops about this novel can be credited to Davis’s immense talent to give us characters who are real and interesting and dynamic. The protagonist, Milo Byers, for instance, is certainly a not too distant cousin of Gregory Mcdonald’s character I.M. Fletcher, better known as Fletch and better known also as being played by Chevy Chase in the film adaptations. But then I digress. The thing you need to know about Milo Byers is that you’re going to be hard pressed to come across a funnier, wise-cracking character in a novel. I would offer one or two examples, but, seriously, just read the book. They’re everywhere.
And, just as importantly, Milo is a tragic figure, along with his friend, the even more tragic Meander Casey (how’s that for an incredibly good character name?). But in Davis’s hands, tragedy becomes a chance for growth and introspection rather than moving the narrative into overly serious territory. And when his characters are doing this, Davis is at his best — plain spoken, honest, and insightful. But it’s not all fields of deeper meaning. There is fun to be had in Nightwolf. A book with a fair amount of crime and violence, there are some of the usual suspects, including a roughneck named Hallahan, who is every bit as nasty as you picture him. There’s the wise old man, if you’re interests veer more toward the Jungian, and, of course, the enigmatic and entirely mysterious Nightwolf, the graffiti artist whose identity mysteriously twists throughout the narrative.
A novel replete with the disturbing and seedy aspects of a smaller city and rife with characters that should only ever be referred to as splendid creations from the midst of that torn community, Nightwolf will certainly not be the last we hear from Willie Davis. Davis undoubtedly has more wit and cleverness to deliver to us his message about seeking truth and purpose in life. There are books to come. Be sure of it.