Novels You Should Read or Listen to: “Ill Will” by Dan Chaon
I’ve had an Audible account for a while, and I’ve found some gems based on what I already liked to read before I started listening. With my commutes in and out of Baltimore, and with some long trips we’ve had — and will have — I’ve found it much easier to turn on a book and listen than to try and read before going to bed. That, and most of my reading nowadays are journal articles and news articles about violence in Baltimore.
It’s good to escape once in a while… Except when a novel like Ill Will catches you and doesn’t let you go until the very last second, if it lets you go at all.
Spoilers throughout, but especially after I explicitly warn you below, in case you don’t want to know what happens.
Ill Will is described as a horror novel, but it’s not horror in the supernatural sense. There is nothing supernatural about it, and that’s probably what makes it so scary. Everything that the plot delivers in fantastic narration by different characters is very human. It could happen. It could happen to you, to your neighbor, or to someone you care about. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel small pangs of panic when certain events took place.
And then there’s the ending… My God, the ending.
The novel starts off being narrated by Dustin, a psychologist in his 40s, married, with two male children: Dennis and Aaron. Dustin tells us about his clients and about his life at home. He then introduces us to Aqil, a former cop who is in need of some therapy but also has an obsession with a recent series of mysterious deaths happening around Cleveland. The victims are all male, white and young, college students last seen at a bar and drunk.
Dustin’s friendship with Aquil brings back memories of a horrible event in Dustin’s past. When he was a child, Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle were murdered out in western Nebraska. Dustin’s adopted brother, Rusty, is tried and found guilty of the murders. Rusty is sentenced to life, but DNA evidence clears him of the crime after doing more than 30 years. It is Rusty’s release that triggers Dustin into thinking of what happened.
Rusty is a bad seed, by the way. He describes himself as a murderer who hasn’t killed anyone. He has plenty of deviant behaviors to him, including having sex with Dustin’s twin female cousins and sexually assaulting Dustin himself. Once released from prison, Rusty finds a job in Chicago and sets off a plan to try and understand why Dustin would testify against Rusty.
A second narrator in the novel tells us the story from the point of view of Aaron, Dustin’s teenage son. Aaron’s mom has died from ovarian cancer, and his friend’s mom is going through the same ordeal. Aaron doesn’t react well to all of this and starts using heroin. He gets the heroin from Rabbit, the friend with the also dying mom. We get to hear from Aaron about Dustin’s spiral into a sort of delusional behavior that has Dustin forgetting to live in the present, in reality.
This is where the horror started for me. Dustin’s wife goes to see a doctor about a mass she feels in her abdomen. She is a successful lawyer, a prosecutor, and she succumbs to the cancer early in the story. Dustin is left with his grief, a grief he cannot manage well because he is ensnarled by Aqil and the search for “Jack Daniels,” the mythical serial killer of the young men. (They call the killer “Jack Daniels” because the young men are all said to have been found dead with high blood alcohol levels and last seen binge drinking at a bar.)
Dustin’s wife’s death horrified me because I can’t imagine losing my wife when we’re only starting our life together. (Yeah, we’ve been together for 12 years, but that’s a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.) I was horrified to think that, like Dustin, I could lose sight of what matters should such a tragedy ever befall me. Dustin’s oldest son goes off to college and becomes estranged from him. Aaron takes up heroin and basically comes to hate Dustin. And Dustin loses touch of his mental health therapy clients, diving deep into thinking of the past, of the murders of his family, and now obsessing over Aqil’s project.
A third narrator then enters the story and tells us from an omniscient point of view the events in western Nebraska about 30 year earlier. Yes, Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle are killed. But we are left with a lot of questions of what exactly happened. Dustin’s twin female cousins, Kate and Wave, were rebellious teenage girls who liked to do “stuff” with Rusty and his friends. Dustin, being too young then for their shenanigans, was the butt of jokes and pranks, and he was very gullible when told outright lies. Once we find out how easily he could be manipulated, he becomes a very unreliable narrator.
This was the second point of horror for me. Memories are very real things to all of us. It’s how we know where we’ve been and how we are the way we are. Memories tell us the story of everything in our lives. Can you imagine if our memories were found out to be false? If they were planted there by suggestions from other people, people with ill will towards us? It would be almost as bad as completely losing touch with reality, in my opinion. The more I listened, the more I kept thinking of memories from my childhood, wondering if any of them were constructs of stories told to me later on.
I shudder at the thought just writing that.
Of course, we also get to hear Rusty’s point of view of the whole thing. His narration comes later on in the novel, once certain important plot points have been revealed and a set of events is underway to bring the story to its climax. He tells us of his life after being released from jail, and he gives us his version of events of what happened in Nebraska. This brings the audience to three distinct possibilities of what happens, and it’s not until we listen to Wave describing a fourth version of the events to Aaron over the phone that I really just wanted to tune stop and take a break.
See, if one version is true, then Dustin and his cousins are victims of a horrible monster, a monster that was rightfully put away in jail but has now been released. If Rusty’s version of events is true, then Dustin is the villain and was key in sending away an innocent teen to a life in prison. Then, if the third-person’s view of Kate and Wave’s experiences is true, then Rusty is a bad seed but not the killer, and Dustin is still a victim of a monster, and Kate and Wave have been robbed of their lives by a series of events that may or may not have been their doing. Finally, if Wave’s version of events is true, then everyone that’s still alive is innocent, and the murders in western Nebraska were just an event most unlucky.
Dan Chaon does a phenomenal job of not telling us what’s true and what isn’t, and then twisting the narrative so that it matters, but it doesn’t… Until it does.
[SPOILERS REALLY, REALLY BEGIN HERE]
See, in all of this intrigue of the murders in Nebraska, we only get slight hints of what is happening in the present day in Cleveland with respect to the Jack Daniels murders. It seems at first like Aqil is just obsessing and seeing a pattern that isn’t there, but his befriending of Dustin — along with Dustin’s understanding of how the human mind works — tilts us toward thinking that there might be something there.
Aaron’s friend, Rabbit, is killed early on in the novel, so Aaron loosely joins in on the investigation with Aqil and Dustin. This brings Aaron to some dark places in order to track down Rabbit’s whereabouts at first and Rabbit’s last moments later on. We are introduced to some dark characters, any of which could be the Jack Daniels serial killer. In fact, Aaron gets so close that he becomes a victim himself, but we don’t find out who the bad guy is until the very last possible moment.
That spoiler I’ll leave out of this review because it was both expected — if you’re into Sherlock Holmes-style whodunits — and unexpected because we’re completely swallowed up in what happened in Nebraska throughout.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just Aaron that was the victim of the Jack Daniels serial killer. Dustin is too… And so is Rusty, in a roundabout way. And you’re feeling bad for Rusty because he never killed anyone and gets killed in an unceremonious and unfair way. When you rewind everything back to the beginning, you think to yourself that it made absolute sense who ended up being the killer… But were they the killer all along? Or, as Dustin explained, are the Jack Daniels serial murders crimes of opportunity by people who wish to pile on and be part of the narrative, part of the pattern that they desperately want to wish into existence?
In the end, we’re left with two stories, two murder mysteries: one in the past and one in the present. The one in the past is told to us by an unreliable narrator, Dustin, who was shown to be very susceptible to suggestions given to him by his adopted brother and his twin cousins. A narrator who, in the present, is not reliable either because of the grief he is feeling from losing his wife and the obsession he’s gaining with discovering the serial killer. A second unreliable narrator then steps in to tell us what happened, but Rusty is very messed up himself in the past — having lost his family and using/abusing drugs — and in the present from the feeling of wanting revenge from having been sent to jail.
The mystery in the present is also full of unreliable narrators. Dustin, for the reasons I wrote above; Aaron, because of his drug abuse and the things he’s willing to do to score drugs; and Aqil, because he explains to us, via Dustin, that he has some issues which got him kicked off the police force. Just like the murders in the past, the murders in the present could have been done by anyone on purpose, or they could just be an unfortunate set of events… All of which brings its own horror.
In the end, I was left exhausted. Had I read this as a book, I probably would not have been able to put it down from the get-go. As it is, I was sitting in my car or taking slightly longer routes to get to my destination just so I could get through the next chapter. This is not your typical novel where the good guys win. The “bad guy” very much wins in the end. The unreliable narrators are disposed of, so we never find out the truth about neither the past nor the present… Though we kind of understand the present more than the past.
Presented as a horror novel, the horror comes from how real and how plausible this all seems. Your memories could be wrong, and you could end up hurting someone with them. Or you could have a monster move into your life and hurt you and those you love, and that monster doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could be cancer, mental disease, drug abuse, or a serial killer. In the end, you’re left wondering, inventing the next chapter in this novel in your head… Because it does stay in your head, and that may be the best kind of horror of them all.
p.s. If audiobooks save trees by saving books from being printed on paper, this novel did some damage in the carbon footprint I left behind from trying to keep listening in the car.