'Gone to the Wolves' masterfully portrays the heavy metal scene of the '80s and '90s
If you've ever been part of a specific music scene, you know that every scene has its own unspoken rules, taboos and, of course, sense of style.
As a once metalhead myself (my subgenres of choice: thrash, glam, and power metal), I found a great deal to enjoy in John Wray's sixth novel, Gone to the Wolves, which masterfully portrays the heavy metal scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s through the eyes of Floridian teenagers. But don't let the topic scare you off; like any good novel about a subculture (or several), Wray's newest does not require prior knowledge of or interest in metal in order to enjoy it.
After a brief chapter that serves as a flash forward (an all too common device these days, one that often reads as if it were added in order to alleviate publishers' anxieties about hooking readers in with a mystery right from the start), the book begins: It's the late 1980s in Venice, Florida, and the local metal scene is booming to such an extent that there is now a Wikipedia page dedicated to it. Kip Norvald, whose father is in prison and whose mother is no longer in his life, has just arrived to live with his grandmother and attend his last year of high school. He's soon befriended by Leslie Z, a metalhead with a soft spot for glam and an encyclopedic knowledge of the guitars, amps, pedals, and mixes used in his favorite bands' music. Kip is utterly lost in the flood of Leslie's expertise, but when he listens to a local band, Death, on Leslie's stereo, something clicks:
"It hit him too fast to make sense of at first: a pelting hail of hammered notes, a low-end hiss, an epileptic bass line... He felt physically sick. Then the shrieking kicked in. It sounded like someone trying to sing a nursery rhyme while being burned at the stake. The singer could have been angry, or ecstatic, or in excruciating pain — there was no way to know, because the lyrics were impossible to decipher... He was being offered the same purifying fear, the same catharsis, the same revelation midnight slasher movies gave: that everything wasn't going to be all right. Not now and not ever. And that made perfect sense to him."
As Kip becomes immersed in heavy metal and its attendant scene, he becomes drawn to a Kira Carson, another headbanger who, according to Leslie, has an actual death wish. The three soon become a bona fide trio, linked by music and outsider status: Leslie is often the sole Black person at any show, and is bisexual and adopted by white parents to boot; Kira, who is white, is nominally homeschooled although in reality her home consists mostly of a reclusive mother and an abusive father; and Kip, white as well, is the literal outsider, attending senior year in a place where everyone has known each other for ages. They find strength and enjoyment in each other, even as the dynamics begin to get messy; Kip is crushing on Kira hard, Kira is more interested in older and meaner men, and Leslie is sleeping with Kira's cousin, a weed dealer who occasionally beats him up.
Their friendship becomes even more complicated and chaotic when the three move to LA together and attempt to find jobs, go to shows, and become acquainted with a scene that's a kind of fun house mirror reflection of Florida's. Glam is still in as far as Angelinos are concerned, and Sunset Strip "on a Saturday night was a cavalcade of feather boas and press-on eyelashes and fishnet gloves and assless leather chaps. It was dominated by men in full-on drag, especially on stage. And the weirdest thing about it was that everyone was straight." One typical night in LA sees Leslie and Kip attending a party at a band house rumored to have once been Aerosmith's headquarters. Kip, dressed in skinny jeans, a pink mesh vest, and purple Doc Martens, realizes that "all it would take to bring the whole scene crashing down would be for someone, just one random person, to look around and start laughing."
This is arguably true of nearly any alternative music scene, but it's especially gratifying to see Wray's characters grappling with the deadly seriousness so often associated with metal — a genre that's historically frightened people to irrational extent — and beginning to find the cracks evident in the posture.
I was disappointed, however, with the characterization of Kira Carson, who despite glimmers of real human depth, reads all too often like a collection of damaged woman stereotypes, her sense of her own brokenness rendering her incredibly alluring to, apparently, all men everywhere. Kip, Leslie, and Kira are all self-destructive at various points, each dealing with complex emotional pain, but Kira's primary features are her self-loathing and near suicidal thrill seeking. It makes sense that neither Kip nor Leslie is able to see her clearly, as they're teenage boys involved in a scene that was and still is rather sexist. But in a book that otherwise renders its characters with nuance, it's a shame that Kira isn't as fully imagined.
The novel's third section, which Kira features in mostly as an absence, is perhaps its most dramatic, dealing as it does with the very real violence, racism, and cultish fanaticism present in the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s — but I will let readers arrive at the morbid and eerie details on their own.
Ultimately, Gone to the Wolves is a powerful and juicy novel about a particular time, subculture, and the ways people can find themselves in — or can deliberately disappear into — fandom.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.