RULES FOR WEREWOLVES, by Kirk Lynn. Melville House, 352 pp., $25.95.
About midway through Kirk Lynn’s debut novel, doubts about “Rules for Werewolves” begin to dissolve.
Readers may be forgiven for bringing baggage to the book, such as a bit of an attitude: Oh, please, enough with the werewolves-and-vampires stories already. And must yet another dystopian tale involving alienated young adults be paraded before the reading public?
But it turns out Lynn’s book isn’t about werewolves, really. This is the tale of a loosely organized pack of teens and young adults fleeing the abuse and hopelessness of their pasts. They stake a claim to homes abandoned in the suburbs of Los Angeles just after the mortgage crisis. They break in, pick a place to sleep and trash the place before moving on. So far, they’ve managed to stay one step ahead of the police. And that’s an achievement, because you’ll smell these people before you see them.
In a monologue, Bobert outlines the group’s approach to hygiene: “We don’t take showers. We don’t comb our hair. We don’t wash our clothes. We don’t brush our teeth. . . . There is a look we’re going for, and a smell, and a taste. We want to become rotten. We want to look wild. You get a kind of respect from it.”
Members of the group want people to see “that you’re not normal, that you don’t play by normal rules. So they can’t assume that you won’t growl at them if they make eye contact, that you won’t rip off their arm if they tap you on the shoulder.”
Actors would yearn to deliver Lynn’s juicy lines about life for young adults in post-recession America. Kirk is a playwright and faculty member in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin.
The novel examines a mindset that justifies stealing instead of earning a living. In Angel’s monologue, she says:
“I think that’s the only thing money’s good for: determining what you really love. Because money’s like a gem you have to mine for in the pits of hate. No one would go to work at a Wal-Mart if there wasn’t something else out in the world that she loved.”
The squatters believe they are choosing to live off the land in some kind of modern update on our ancestors. Abandoned houses are open caves available for shelter; a supermarket is like meat on the hoof, there for the taking.
The book has several humorous moments, including the group’s decision to move on up to a nicer home in a nicer part of a neighborhood, despite their apparent rejection of a conventional way of life. It seems they’re not exempt from aspirations: cable TV, video games and quality booze. So, they break into a house while the owners are away on a one-month vacation. Any utopian visions that members of the pack harbor about finding a better way to live seem hollow. Some believe they have transcended the system even while they engage in attacking it.
Lynn balances the quest for freedom with the reality of needing food, shelter and medicine to survive. He captures the exhilaration of youths on an adventure while offering differing perspectives on American culture, class and the economy. Lynn is deftly juggling a lot and mostly succeeds.
At some point in the reading, even the book’s possible flaws begin to seem intentional, just clever ways that Lynn captures the dilution of individuality and free will as a pack mentality takes hold.