Davis’ prose is tight, resonant, and kept fresh through the protagonist and a sparkling cast of youth surrounding the central conflict in this bright, unforgettable novel. While the plot is a slow burn and never really coheres in a satisfying way, the dialogue and character interaction more than make up for any shortcomings elsewhere.
Nightwolf could be called a coming of age tale in that its protagonist grows up, starting at seventeen and ending the story at twenty-three. But that would be reductive, or even misleading. For the main character, Milo, seems to begin this raw tale as an aged, troubled soul who never quite finds solace. The story revolves around the disappearance of Milo’s brother, Aaron, and a case of potential molestation by one of Milo’s friends, which begins, and remains, a devastating rumor that even the accused perpetrator seems bewildered by at the end.
Crafty Dialogue Shines
Milo and a revolving door of witty, complex, grime-ridden characters look to make up for things that have happened in the past in such a way that it demoralizes their collective outlook. These are characters who are stuck in the present, accosted by the past, and unable to see anything better for themselves. Their lack of imagination about who they might become is palpable and deftly wrought. Davis at times has a penchant for overuse of simile in and out of dialogue, but the true shining star of this story is his seemingly effortless recreation of the banter between young men who have been forced to grow up in myriad unhealthy ways before their time.
Every line of dialogue is smart, crafty, and quick-fire, which makes the grunginess of the setting and these characters’ realities even starker. Their only defense is to turn toward jibes and barbs against one another. It is infinitely recognizable and endears each of the central characters when they might otherwise be morally inept indigents. In a book that might have turned into showing the grittiness of a hard youth for grittiness’ sake, the dialogue separates it from other hardened bildungsromans.
A Sometimes Slow, Yet Riveting Burn
The plot meanders, at times doing little more than giving the characters fodder for new, sharp dialogue, though part two of the book is definitely the stronger half, when the stakes are raised slightly and Milo zips through a series of strange encounters on his ultimate quest to reconcile the potential rumored molesting that occurred six years prior with actual truth. What he, and the reader is left with, are not answers per se. Rather, they are explanations for how Milo is able to keep living despite what he has seen, been forced to realize, and is left to decipher.
It perhaps is a missed opportunity that Milo’s relationships with his mother (who is beset by tragedy during the book) and his brother (whose initial disappearance seems weighty but never is) are not further developed. He has clear attachments to them but they are peripheral and fade quickly from the plot as it darts toward other objects. Then again, what the story becomes about is more Milo’s reckoning with the choices he’s made, the company he has kept, independent of any familial influence. Milo must face what Milo has created for himself. Perhaps that is what makes the conclusion so gut-wrenching as Milo faces his reality alone.
There were times in this slim novel when I thought Davis had lost the track, where I thought a good idea had devolved. But every time that happened, something would click back into place, the ship would right itself and keep humming along as characters kept delivering funny, biting one-liners.
The dialogue is some of the best I’ve encountered in a long time, the story is equal parts empathic and devastating, and what Davis has accomplished is to show us a different type of growing up book, one where the past is not escaped, where it digs its claws in and doesn’t release. Our society is not made of happy endings. In many cases we are a society defined by our damages, just as Milo seems defined by his. It will be a long time before I forget Milo. It will be a long time before I forget this novel’s closing words, which I heartily invite you to discover for yourself.