Daniel Kraus’ debut novel, The Monster Variations, is being released via Random House’s “young adult” imprint, though it’s really a book for the kind of teens—and adults, for that matter—who keep a well-thumbed stack of Stephen King novels on their shelves. The Monster Variations is like a King story with the horror (mostly) removed and the finely observed depiction of small-town life extended. Kraus writes about three junior-high friends—wealthy honors student James, meek-but-eager Willie, and ruffian Reggie—as their lives subtly change over the course of one summer. The boys’ hometown imposes a curfew after Willie gets run over by a mysterious stranger in a silver pickup, and as the months wear on, Reggie pushes his pals to stay out late and investigate some of the community’s enduring mysteries. Reggie’s pot-stirring ultimately reveals rifts between them all that may be unbridgeable.
Kraus frames the story as James looking back on his past while driving out of town to start his freshman year of college, and in part because of that narrative device, The Monster Variations is largely devoid of real surprise. But it’s also predictable because so much about it rings true. It’s fairly common for inseparable elementary-school friends to drift apart once adolescence kicks in, as differences in maturity, resources, and temperament become more pronounced. The “monster” in The Monster Variations is primarily figurative; it’s the prospect of adult responsibility and adult secrets stalking three kids who, just a year earlier, were content to lounge around their treehouse. Kraus shows a rare skill at making that prospect of maturation terrifying. In one of the book’s most gripping passages, the hapless Willie sets out on a chore, and due to a combination of insecurities and insufficiencies, he completely botches the job. It’s a painful chapter to read, largely because Willie himself is such a frightening and pitiful figure: the boy who can’t grow up.