A Novelby Tristan Egolf
“The voice is unforgettable, at times attaining the incantatory power of Whitman’s ‘barbaric yawp.'” –New Yorker
The new novel from acclaimed young novelist Tristan Egolf, the author of Lord of the Barnyard, is the story of a community in Pennsylvania terrorized by an Amish teenage werewolf–and a wildly imaginative tale that recalls young Kurt Vonnegut.
Tristan Egolf was one of our most talented young writers–a ferociously witty writer with an absolutely original imagination, whose novels Lord of the Barnyard and Skirt and the Fiddle were widely acclaimed. His new novel is a book about the return of an old curse–the Kornwolf, a ferocious werewolf whose nocturnal rampaging becomes increasingly impossible to ignore.
Kornwolf is a book about not being able to keep a good Amish werewolf down. It takes the reader for a good old-fashioned romp in the stubble–a journey through the slums and honky tundra of rural Pennsylvania farmland, where nothing quite passes for good or bad, sublime or dismal, discrete or brash: just ‘solid, implacable, unbroken gray.” And then the monotony breaks. Something–a freak of creation–is running amok in the fields. To solve the mystery, three generations of prodigal sons–a writer and hometown boy who swore he’d never come back to Penn’s Woods; a middle-aged former pugilist who runs a decrepit boxing gym; and a misfit, mute, beaten-down Amish boy about to become a man–are brought together by the light of a blue moon, in a town called Blue Ball. Kornwolf is a book about Rumspringa, fisticuffs, homecomings, alienation, and Amish whiskey ministers, as seen through the eyes of a young man who finds himself inexplicably waking up nude in the fields every morning.
A masterfully orchestrated, hilarious, and compelling take on the classic horror yarn on one level, Kornwolf layers in social satire of suburban sprawl, closed minds, and all manners and varieties of self-satisfaction–Amish, civilian, or. . . other–in the best tradition of Tom Robbins and George Saunders.
“The voice is unforgettable, at times attaining the incantatory power of Whitman’s ‘barbaric yawp.’” –New Yorker
“Only the author of Lord of the Barnyard could pull off a tale like this.” –Library Journal
“It’s not every day that someone tells you to read a book about an Amish werewolf, but today is that day of days. This story is not for the faint of heart. It is also one you want to keep reading and aren’t always sure why. You’ll come face to face with not-so-perfect families, religion, frustration with coming-of-age and fitting in.” –Amy Gillard, Shelf Awareness
Praise for Tristan Egolf:
“Exuberant . . . outrageous.” –The New Yorker on Lord of the Barnyard
“An arctic blast of fresh air and a far cry from the formulaic writing so prevalent in much contemporary fiction.” –San Francisco Chronicle on Lord of the Barnyard
“A Rabelaisian explosion of language . . . not only a stylistic tour de force but also a baroque novel reminiscent of C”line, John Kennedy Toole, and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. It is farcical, satirical, and prodigiously inventive.” –Detroit Free Press on Lord of the Barnyard
“[Egolf is] a writer eager to take chances, totally unafraid and allergic to conventions. . . .
Skirt and the Fiddle is certainly Felliniesque.” –The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) on Skirt and the Fiddle
“Egolf’s prose is dizzying and exhilarating, like a roller coaster that’s all loops. . . . His dialogue is snappier than His Girl Friday, and he can make a plot twist faster than a trapped rat.” –Philadelphia City Paper on Skirt and the Fiddle
PART ONE: Introductions – Owen
For years, had it been suggested that Owen might ever again reside in Stepford, he would have endeavored to let it slide, but not without having been vaguely insulted. In over a decade away from the town of his birth, he had always defined it outright as the ‘source of his lasting discontent,” the one place on earth he could never live ” Weekends “home” were bad enough: fraught, as they were, with urges to seize on the nearest suburban dolt in passing and pummel him into renunciation. In time, the farther he strayed abroad, the brighter such impulses flared on return. By early adulthood, more than an evening in town was a field-tested nonpossibility. He wouldn’t have lasted a week as an actual resident. Stepford County. Jesus ” Better off dead than a prodigal son. The mere idea would have left him reeling.
In youth, on many an afternoon, he had climbed the neighborhood water tower, and, from thirty rungs over the treetops, regarded the rolling, unbroken expanse of forest (three thousand years of native prosperity, two extended colonial wars, an influx of German and Swiss migration and a meltdown at Three Mile Island, upriver, gone by and still, by appearances, Penn’s Woods, in the actual lay of the treaty) set to emerge from a decade of semi-privileged suburban honky conquest with all but scattered clumps of fauna lost in a maze of development housing–the “gingerbread eyesore modules,” he called them–and overlapped highways and treeless lawns, to the mall, and beyond: to the outskirts of town, hazily gray with industrial smoke, and nary a cropping of overgrowth fit to sustain the groundhogs in between: where once this valley had thrived with game, now it was crawling with Astro Vans. Regarding it thus, Owen felt odd, if ill-suited, in knowing that he, at the age of thirty, remembered the good old days.
As good old days they had rarely been.
On most of those afternoons, staring across the as-yet undefiled valley, with nowhere to go, in particular, no one who knew what to make of Blonde on Blonde, no parlors or pool halls, and unbelievably, 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, through the plasticine tarpaulin thrown over everything, pinpoints suggesting a world out there, a place where pedestrians wandered the streets, where music drifted from open windows, where blankets of smoke and aromas of coffee and laughter filled dimly lit taverns at night–around fountains, through courtyards, cathedrals, down riverbanks, into the shallows by light of the moon–where young people met under streetlamps in cobblestone plazas to shuffle and mumble and dance–(instead of resorting in boredom and sheer desperation to feats of vandalism: from hurling garbage toward oncoming traffic on back roads at seventy miles an hour, to golf balls driven through schoolroom windows, dung from the overpass, spray painting, brush fires: anything able to quell the furnace, to strike some terror into these people)–where public schooling wasn’t a daily incentive to go on a shooting spree, where the architecture reflected the most remedial grasp of human aesthetics, where open discourse was considered a virtue, and everyone read on buses and benches, and people like Owen would not go forever unnoticed by members of the opposite sex–a place suggested in celluloid images, songs from the dustbowl, Keaton and Garbo, late night shortwave radio broadcasts, veiled accounts from the roaring twenties–instead of the universe Owen had inhabited (captive stooge in the honky tundra) where nothing quite passed for sublime or dismal, discreet or brash, even fair to midland–just solid, implacable, unbroken gray, with the least of all plausible worldly variance.
Owen had grown up dreaming of nuking it. Stepford could render such impulses rational.
So then, the question begged of its own: how did he find himself driving up Old Route 30, heading east in “Chiffon” (his locally insured Subaru Legacy), Owen Brynmor, East Zone Cops Reporter for the Stepford Daily Plea: a gainfully employed, taxpaying registered Independent and downtown resident?
Right now, swamped in rush hour traffic, it made no sense. He couldn’t get his mind around it. Everything was vaguely incomprehensible–adding to which, his nicotine fits hadn’t let up for twenty-four hours and counting ”
(His “patch” had been tossed in the can that morning, prompted by nausea, fever and madness. From there on out, he had gone cold turkey–so much worse than he could have expected: black as the cosmos, noxious bobbing, as bad as withdrawing from any drug.)
He gripped the wheel.
The road before him was jammed on an angle. The sky was red. And the drivers around him, clearly intending to thwart him at every turn, were to blame. Traffic was tied up for miles. He hadn’t been caught on this stretch of highway in years. The landscape had been overhauled completely: more motor resorts, more developments, dining and shopping outlets to every side: another campaign of de-sanctification gone by, and no one the wiser, apparently.
Sickened, impatient and reeling with visions of bombing it all, he could take no more.
He shifted his Legacy into gear and gunned it across the highway divider. Veering in front of oncoming traffic, he vaulted into a parking lot. From there, he blew by a taffy emporium, rounded a corner and shot up a one-lane strip running under the elevated monorail system of the Dutch Land amusement park. To either side, enormous metal support columns flashed in rapid succession. Off to the left, a moat full of porcelain Dutchies appeared in a fountain basin. The park had been closed for the season, apparently. None of the rides were moving. Horror.
Continuing: under an overpass, back onto Old Route 30 a mile up flow, then three more lights until finally, a left onto 891–a two-lane road winding north through a stretch of forested gray. Owen, relieved to have shaken the clot of humanity, maintained excessive speed. Traffic like that, back there, enraged him beyond all limits of human endurance. Traffic like that was apocalyptic. And like it or not, it was back in his life.
He suddenly found it incredible, shocking, an earth-rendering bolt of primordial awe–to think that he’d actually chosen to re-immerse himself in this world of shit. What on earth had gotten into him? Had he come here expecting a rebirth of wonder? If so, he was in for a rude awakening. That’s what this was. The traffic proved it ”
Five turns later, a road sign appeared for the Lamepeter Township game reserve. Owen followed it down a gravel path cutting into the woods for a mile. Beyond a rickety wooden bridge, he came to a field of matted grass, on one end of which sat a tiny cottage with stacks of timber out front.
This was it.
He parked. Releasing his white-knuckled grip on the wheel, he got out of the car and stretched. He drew in the air, then looked around. Alone, it appeared. In an open clearing. With one other vehicle–a pickup truck.
Above him, a network of juniper limbs extended across the afternoon sky: for miles on end, gnarled and twisted and stark, with occasional hatchings of pine.
He made for the cottage–across the clearing and up a wood-chipped path to the entrance. A plaque read: “NO DRUNK SHOOTING” –facing outward. Then: “VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT.” Signed: “KRATZ.”
Kratz, Owen had to assume, being Joel, his contact, the Lamepeter Township game warden–Kratz, who had claimed to have ‘something bizarre” which the paper would ‘definitely” want to see (though he hadn’t known how to explain it by phone, and “no one would ever believe it anyway”), Kratz, the smallish, rigidly coiled, if typical make of a warden inside, beckoning hither, all scruff and grizzle: pure Kascynski behind his desk ”
Owen swallowed and stepped inside. The room was hot and stunk of mold. A pair of antlers hung on the wall–and beside it, a VFW flag.
The warden spoke first: “You the reporter?”
Owen nodded, displaying his press badge.
Kratz looked him over, appearing uncertain. A wrinkle creased his brow. He was tentative.
Then he broke off and, shrugging, produced a manila folder.
“Here’s your story.”
As Owen himself would reiterate back at the office, the explanation followed.
The morning before, October 6th, one Dwayne Gibbons, a native of Blue Ball and longtime hunter on Kratz’s reserve, had come by the office with a puzzling set of negatives from his photographic ‘motion detector.” Motion detectors, the warden explained, were battery-operated mechanisms used in the tracking of game–in this case deer. Entirely legal, these common devices consisted of two very basic components, two small plastic boxes to be mounted on separate trees in close proximity. Between these units, a laser transmission was maintained. In the event of the beam’s disruption, a built-in camera was triggered, recording the scene–with a flash, if needed–and the time. The purpose and function being: to determine the herding patterns of local deer. By such means, both effective stalking and the placement of tree stands might be determined.
The use of motion detectors was not at all unusual, Kratz explained.
“But this,” he continued, shaking his head while presenting the folder, “this is a first.”
Not knowing what to expect, Owen took it and, flipping the cover, looked inside. There were photographs in there–a stack of enlargements. Grainy, underexposed and off angle, the first one appeared to be shot in the dark: a falling leaf in the flashbulb’s range. The second exposure wasn’t much clearer, just brighter, having been taken at dawn. The third and fourth prints showed a tangle of hooves and hindquarters, shot by the light of day. The fifth was a buck in profile, marked 9/28, 17:49. The next four shots featured groundhogs digging. Certainly nothing to fire up the presses ”
Then he flipped to number ten.
Years down the road, he would hearken back to the very first image that came to mind: a fuming heap of scrapple some Philth Town waitress had served him, back in the drink–a brazenly heedless order placed, the arrival of something unfit for display, scarcely to be recalled, until now: something which shouldn’t, and won’t occur naturally. Something right out of a waste dump in Jersey. Or up from the depths of a portable toilet.
In days to come, opinions would vary with wild extravagance, far and wide: some people claiming this blotted image resembled a dog–only backwards and rearing with some kind of horrible skin disease. Others would argue those “weeping lesions’ were actually calluses. Or parasites, maybe. One man would claim that it looked like Richard Nixon plastered in mud or feces. Others would lean toward a five-legged brown bear entangled in hawk wire, down from the Poconos.
No one would know what to make of the face. The jury would go out on every feature. A knotted mound of what might be considered a cheekbone was really a snout, some would say. Others would doubt it, seeing the bulge instead as a cyst on a back-turned head–or maybe an angry boil, hives, a case of the shingles, cauliflower ear ”
In truth, there would be many takes on which end of the photo was even supposed to be up–and which direction the “figure” within it (if even conceded) was actually facing. Skeptics would howl, of course–but to little effect, overall, and with dismal wit. Regardless of what else was said of the photo, it naggingly begged some basic questions. Such as: who would have gone to such crafty, elaborate lengths in staging this image but not followed through with a sharper photo? Why leave out a discernible profile? Why the contusions and the hairless patches? Why would anyone go so far without adding the final, convincing touches? After all, as long as Gibbons didn’t check out as an anarchist yahoo, his alibi couldn’t have been any tighter. It was brilliant–too brilliant not to be true. Why allow room for controversy?
Of course, maybe that was a part of the plan: befuddle the public with imprecision. Which would have accounted, in part, for Gibbons, whose record would complicate matters further. Domestic charges. Bankruptcy. Drunk driving. Outstanding warrants for unpaid fines–all of which would be held up to rigorous public review in days to come, yet none of which fingered Gibbons for a practical joker.
In a word, he was simply a wretch.
For Joel Kratz, the answer lay elsewhere–as yet to be fathomed, though pressing, surely: either somebody was running amok in a steel wool jumpsuit, at risk of drawing fire, or something ungodly was loose in his woods.
Either way, it gave him the creeps.
For Owen, the case was less in doubt. Moreover, it called for a tip of the hat. Somebody–other than Kratz or Gibbons, most likely–had whipped up a fabulous hoax. Its presentation, down to the last detail, made Owen flush with envy. It also managed to take his mind off of smoking (or not), if just for a moment. For that much, he would remain indebted, and moreso, amazed: he had actually laughed ” It was truly a first-rate piece of work. The least he could do was publicize it.
Back at the office, his (questionably mad) city editor, Terrance Jarvik, agreed. On viewing the photo, the old man broke down in laughter. Emerging from which, he was game.
His rival pulpit, the Horaceburg Screed, would be livid, he claimed. They had no sense of humor.
Thereby, Owen was handed not only the story, but his very own “Halloween” series (he couldn’t dispute the title just yet), beginning with five hundred words by midnight–an order which, after speaking with Kratz, then delving into the public files, would yield his unearthing a long-forgotten chapter of Stepford County’s past: something familiar to none but an aging resident few. The caption would follow: a lead that, upon publication, would cast a tenuous line into area memory, something to prompt many locals to ridicule, others to barring their doors at night, and the rest to a vague, bewildered disquiet.
The Blue Ball Devil was back.
1. Tristan Egolf was a member of the Smoketown Six, a gang of political activists who made headlines by burning an effigy of George W. Bush and, during a presidential visit, stripping to their underwear and posing in a pile of bodies to protest prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. How is gang identity depicted in Kornwolf? Do the gangs in Kornwolf represent a cause or do they exist for the sake of destruction? Is there evidence of Egolf’s political philosophy or social discontent evident in his writing? What social statement, if any, does this novel make?
2. At the start of the novel, Owen Brynmor reluctantly returns to his hometown of Stepford. Why does he return to a place he so obviously loathes? What are his aspirations? Why is he so despised by his coworkers at the newspaper? Describe Owen’s relationship to the kornwolf. How does Owen identify with him? Ultimately, what purpose does Owen serve in the novel?
3. Rumspringa, which means “running around” in Pennsylvania German, is an Amish tradition in which a young person is set free from the community for a time to experience life outside the church and its rules. The idea is that one must return willingly and accept Christ in order to be baptized as a member of the church and community. How are the various young characters in Kornwolf faring in their rumspringa? Who will return and who will not? Those who do not return to the church are shunned by their families and the other members of the community. What does this reveal about the spiritual dynamic of their society? Are there similar rites outside the Amish community?
4. What is the “Sinner’s Bench” and what is its place in Amish tradition? Why is Grizelda so incensed that Ephraim is forced to sit on it during church? What has Ephraim done to deserve this punishment, and does it fit his crime?
5. Consider the relationship between community acceptance and social avoidance as it is depicted among the Amish in this novel. How has each affected Ephraim? As both a werewolf and a troubled teenager, can his behavior be explained by social conditioning or genetic misfortune? How are these social customs present also in the “English” or secular American society?
6. Kornwolf is set in a region of the United States not often depicted in literature–lower Pennsylvania near the Kentucky border, an area known as “Pennsyltucky.” How would you characterize this region based on the novel’s representation? Describe its geography and culture. Do you get a sense of how the author felt about this area from his depiction?
7. Perhaps it is Jack Stumpf who best represents the dual nature of man and beast in Kornwolf. Discuss the two sides of Stumpf–Jack the boxing trainer and Jacob the upstanding young Amish man who becomes a werewolf. What are Jacob’s crimes and how does Jack reconcile his guilt? How did he inherit the werewolf curse and how is it passed along to Ephraim? How does Grizelda intervene to stop the curse, and does it truly end?
8. Describe the close-knit relationship between Ephraim and Fannie. While they are introduced to us as cousins, we ultimately learn that they share a greater kinship. What are the circumstances? Where does the split between them occur? What prevents Fannie from being more like Ephraim? How does their relationship mirror that of the siblings Jacob and Maria?
9. The novel’s chief villain may be Benedictus Bontrager, also known as the Minister and the Crow. How could Ephraim’s mother have ever considered Benedictus a proper suitor? Why is he so abusive toward Ephraim, and how much is he to blame for the young man’s troubles? Is there anything redeeming about the Minister or is he purely evil? What aspect of religion does he represent?
10. The local police play an adversarial role in Kornwolf. Is this a believable depiction of a small-town police force, or is it played for satire? Who are the “good cops’? What kind of statement do you believe Egolf has made about law enforcement?
11. “All Hail Discordia!” is a sentiment repeated in Kornwolf, as well as a favorite pronouncement of the author. The principles of Discordianism–in which meaning, or meaninglessness, is sought through chaos and disorder–have been explored by writers such as Robert A. Wilson, Thomas Pynchon, and Chuck Palahniuk. How is the idea of discordia reflected in Kornwolf? Consider Egolf’s language, narrative style, characters, and plot. Does the sense of disorder in the novel achieve a higher purpose?
12. The werewolf legend has been a mainstay of Western lore. How does Kornwolf compare to the werewolf stories you’ve heard or read? How is Egolf’s tale an original take on the legend? What triggers the werewolf to emerge in Ephraim and what sort of violence does he enact on the community? What is the significance of the repeated observation that he resembles Richard Nixon?
13. In his werewolf research, Owen comes across a description of the “Harvest Sabbath,” a ritual event from the sixteenth century: “When a group or community lost its faith, or was errant in performing the will of The Lord: “a blight would overcome their fields, as a madness would overtake their young, as a devil would grow to appear among them, enticing their gentlest hearts to murder.” This devil, this spirit of vengeance, would “bury its seed among them by light of the moon,” from which would grow their undoing, in time. The Sabbath itself was a rite of destruction” (p. 155). In light of this discovery, how is the reappearance of the kornwolf a reflection of the Amish society? Is it a scourge sent only to punish the Amish or “the English” as well? What are the “English” transgressions in light of the Harvest Sabbath? Finally, what is the significance of the moon to the kornwolf legend?
14. What aspects of the novel did you find amusing, and how would you characterize Egolf’s comedic style?
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut; The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Vineland by Thomas Pynchon; Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; The Wild by Whitley Strieber; Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King; Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon; A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories by Victor Pelevin; Principia Discordia, Or, How I Found Goddess and What I Did to Her When I Found Her: The Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger by Malaclypse, Robert Anton Wilson, and Kerry W. Thornley; The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, Leviathan by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson; Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo; The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey; Wolf by Jim Harrison
Devil’s Playground (2002 documentary) by Lucy Walker