Willy begins with the arrival of an unnamed adolescent at his next stop in the institutional cycle, a school for boys with emotional problems. His last doctor has suggested that he keep a diary, and so begins the story of a withdrawn child shuttled to a school that is so decrepit it barely functions. There he meets his new roommate, a boy named Willy, whose charisma draws the other young men to him.
Within the first few pages, Robert Dunbar thoroughly places you in the young diarist’s head, and it is heartbreaking to read the thoughts of a child with such low self-esteem. No one encourages him or attempts to draw him from his shell, except for the principal of the school and eventually Willy.
With the arrival of Willy, the diarist begins a subtle transformation that Dunbar communicates with eloquent prose. I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon as I read the diarist’s words grow from those of an isolated child to become the thoughts of a young man. Yet Dunbar doesn’t overreach by creating an adult clothed in an adolescent’s body; he stays true to the diarist’s character and he shows us how love can transform and damn a soul.
This is the kind of novel that makes me yearn for a book club that discussed superior dark fiction. With Willy, the reader gets the best of both worlds–an excellent story for the casual reader, but if you’re like me and like to look a little closer, Willy is a tale of depth both in terms of story and characterization.
This is Robert Dunbar’s finest novel to date and certainly my favorite.