Bad breath, horniness, binge drinking, wild mood swings, and a tendency to wander in the night—signs you are a werewolf or perhaps a teenager. This is the premise of the late Tristan Egolf’s third novel,
Kornwolf, in which the Amish and non-Amish, otherwise known as the English, battle for control of the Pennsyltucky town of Blue Ball and the souls of Amish youth deciding between a life of prayer and temperance or booze and heavy metal at the mall. Plaguing both are traffic jams and the Blue Ball Devil, a lycanthrope who destroys farms and crops and Sprawl Marts alike, who looks like “Richard Nixon plastered in mud or feces” or a “five-legged brown bear entangled in hawk wire,” and who may be the mute Amish teenager Ephraim Bontrager. “Hound of hell, delinquent brigade or crazed adolescent, it made no difference: whoever belonged to that voice was about to get blown in half.”
Egolf committed suicide in May of last year at the age of 33. There were three Egolfs, at least. A better musician (he fronted the punk band Doomed to Obscurity) and political activist (a member of the Smoketown Six arrested for stripping to thong underwear and forming an Abu Ghraib–like human pyramid in front of President Bush in 2004) than Faulkner, to whom Egolf was compared after the publication of his first novel, 1999’s Lord of the Barnyard, Egolf fails to pull off Faulkner’s trick of making you feel complicit in his characters’ sins—narcissistic like Quentin or furious like Jason in The Sound and the Fury. Keystone cops chase the werewolf, and one winds up trussed and hung like an effigy, spinning from a rope and peeing in a figure eight, signifying the author’s infinite disdain for authority. The minister who raised Ephraim is dull and long-winded and the closest he comes to a spiritual experience are his “turbulent visions” while being beaten by the boy. Frantic snippets of the werewolf tearing through the countryside are mostly lists of fancy words for brush. The novel’s 10th joke about blue balls turning people into monsters in Blue Ball is no funnier than the first, and the actual town of Lampeter is changed to “Lamepeter” to suggest another failure to ejaculate.
Everyone is Amish in the eyes of a werewolf. This one runs fast enough to leave speeding police cars in the dust with the horse-drawn buggies, and downs enough crank, scotch, valium, and greasy steak to kill a man. But while Egolf socks it to suburbia—” not one God damned sidewalk, for miles—just a Quik Mart whose owner prohibited loitering, a half-buried junkyard off in the woods, a couple of churches per every mile and a ten-acre asphalt and Plexiglas hamburger factory known as Hempland High, from out of the stifling vortex of which only fleeting points of light would escape”—he treats the Amish with kid gloves. Plodding farm and church scenes are so flat and boring that a tour guide’s warning that “cameras steal their souls” is true of Egolf’s writing, too. “Honkies” brutalize the Plain Folk and Ephraim in particular, but Egolf is silent on the fact that the sweats and fever suffered by Owen Brynmor, a journalist and early candidate to be the werewolf, are caused by nicotine withdrawal—this as he chases the beast through Amish tobacco fields. On the plus side, farmers selling groundhog fillets and other delicacies at market are “twisted on coffee and grease,” and part of the confusion over Ephraim stems from the fact that his erratic behavior and inability to speak may be the result of maple syrup urine disease, a genetic disorder common among the Amish, “the symptoms of which were all too often taken for signs of abuse.”
Egolf has hoed this row before in Barnyard, whose farmer-hero rarely talks, stands accused of bestiality, and is nicknamed “chicken boy,” and his second novel, Skirt and the Fiddle (2002), whose violinist Charlie hunts rats at night, drinks and crashes around like “a gaggle of maimed waterfowl fleeing the korn wolf.” Ephraim breaks his lifelong silence with a sudden burst of German, bringing to mind Wittgenstein’s line that “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” Speech is a hopelessly flawed medium for Egolf, and Kornwolf’s sharpest and most disturbing descriptions are of music “like a wood saw tearing through a carload of trapped gorillas” or a CD cover showing a man with a goat’s head standing before a “wash of darkness streaked with burgundy red and what looked to be creases of light.” A 16th-century list of symptoms of lycanthropy reads like the lyrics to some medieval version of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier”: “Pale skin/Sensitivity to light/An absence of tears or saliva.” If Egolf sometimes writes at a pitch too high for human ears—”He felt like a giant, throbbing artichoke beached in silt”—then try to imagine this line in a song by Beck. Kornwolf is a folk-punk album trapped in a book.