“No two humans see the world in exactly the same way. But it don’t mean
that one is right and one is wrong. William Blake said every eye sees differently
and he’s right, ey? You see and I see. We don’t both need to see the
same thing to be in tune with the universe.”
—Will Henry, in The Willow Man
Reviews: The Willow Man
Full Text of Reviews
The Willow Man
Wynkin de Worde, publisher
Duff Brenna’s fifth novel, The Willow Man, hurtles along in breathless pursuit
of a notorious 18-year-old car thief, Elbert Earl Evans (a.k.a. Triple E), as he
violates Minnesota probation and breaks for Alaska.
On the road north, Triple E adopts the homeless 14-year-old Mercy Jones. Once in
Yukon Territory they find themselves stranded in Whitehorse. There, Triple E locks
in mortal struggle with a powerful, half-crazed sourdough named John Brown who mistakes
Mercy for his long-lost daughter, Mamie.
Brown kidnaps Mercy to the Tombstone Mountains, and the hunted fugitive Triple E
now becomes the hunter, charging into the teeth of a Yukon winter to track Brown
and Mercy down.
On the surface The Willow Man is the tale of a rugged manhunt. Beneath the surface
run deeper currents of courage, devotion, loyalty, love, and a young man’s
quest for personal redemption.
Edgy, quick, and finely honed, The Willow Man is a novel of incontestable power
and redemption, stylistic grace and beauty.
(Copyright Wynkin de Worde. All rights reserved.)
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Adventure by a Master Storyteller
Review by Liam Mac Sheoinin
Irish Edition, August 2006
Expect a lot from the next sentence. Duff Brenna’s new novel, The Willow Man,
rivals the Yukon adventures of Jack London. Since publishing his [third] novel,
cult classic Too Cool, Brenna has established an impressive oeuvre. His last novel,
The Altar of the Body, held up a mocking mirror to the amended American dream: wealth,
fame, and everlasting youth. Brenna’s tender drama of two male, brother-like
cousins, George and Mickey, and Mickey’s older girlfriend, Joy, whose poor
mother, Livia, suffers from dementia, is indelibly marked with genius. In fact,
once one reads one of Brenna’s novels, one will be compelled to read them
The Willow Man, Brenna’s fifth novel, is another indelible work of genius.
Its main character, Triple E, is one of the most determined characters in the pantheon
of American literature. Elbert Earl Evans, hence Triple E, is an 18-year-old parolee
working on his uncle’s farm in Minnesota along with his best friend, Lee.
Triple E is a bright, charismatic, and fearless existentialist. Like London’s
Buck, Triple E hears the call of the wild. He and his close (but subordinate) friend,
Lee, decide to break parole and head to the Yukon in their souped-up vintage car
they call Agnes Church after Triple E’s late grandmother. It is a dark, circuitous
journey lighted by Brenna’s brilliant prose. Brenna’s descriptions are
epicritical, sharp, and unremitting. He deconstructs the fictive dream into a proactive
The story changes course when Triple E and Lee befriend a homeless mother and her
young daughter who are headed for California. Linda, the mother, and Mercy, the
daughter, have been tragically tossed around in life. Linda is dying and exacts
a promise from Triple E that he’ll look out for Mercy when she’s gone.
The beautiful redheaded Mercy, called Carrots by Triple E, is a singer in the troubadour
tradition. She dreams of performing at the Grand Old Opry.
Much of The Willow Man is related in vivid flashbacks. The story opens in the great
white north with Triple E mulling the robbery of a trapper named John Brown. Triple
E believes Brown, the Willow Man of the title, has prurient designs on Mercy, whom
he hears singing in a local bar and whom he thinks is his deceased daughter, Mamie.
Intent on robbing Brown’s bankroll, Triple E travels to the old man’s
cabin, where he sits and drinks with his host, looking for his chance, but the old
man suckers him and leaves him for dead in the river.
Fortunately, Will Henry, a local Indian, fishes Triple E out of the freezing current,
and humorously renames his catch Tooshow, meaning big white fish in his Native American
tongue. Will Henry, an elderly trapper who in his spare time attends dentistry school,
nurses Tooshow back to health and pledges to help him find the Willow Man, John
Brown, who they learn — as Triple E had anticipated — has kidnapped
The Willow Man is a wonderful adventure written by a master storyteller. With The
Willow Man, Brenna has certainly consolidated his position as one of our best novelists.
(Copyright Liam Mac Sheoinin. All rights reserved.)
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The Willow Man
Review by Nicolas Birns
Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture
Willow Man is a mythopoeic quest. What might have seemed merely quirky in Brenna’s
past work here becomes visionary. Set in the Canadian North, it resembles a “Northern”
or Arctic Western as described by T. D. MacLulich; but Brenna is a Southern Californian,
and locale matters less than the element of risk in the prose and action.
This book reminded me of a Larry McMurtry novel rewritten by Paul Bowles —
two writers not renowned for their interest in cold climates. Brenna provides a
glimpse into the urban life of Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, with its Esso®
signs and its “streets full of snow-slush and gravel, crossroads and stoplights.”
Elbert Earl Evans, “Triple E,” is the guardian of Mercy, a teenage waif
who is kidnapped by John Brown and taken away northward. The moral balance is not
a clear one — John Brown refrains, unlike Triple E, from pursuing a sexual
relationship with Mercy.
Both men seem to be retracing an elemental quest into the Arctic, one the pursued,
the other the pursuer; but they both unknowingly pursue an aspiration towards a
more enlightened treatment of women and a spiritual acknowledgment of the idea of
“woman.” Yet their machismo is not satirized or scorned, but embraced
for the way it incarnates the “unvanquished.”
Brenna, unusually, combines a lyrical intensity with a tatterdemalion scruffiness.
Many writers today try for this in a formulaic way, as if it could be achieved by
taking something from column A and column B. Brenna genuinely achieves this mystical
equipoise, because he is fully committed to his characters — not in a Tolstoyan
sense, but in a radical way which incorporates overt fictiveness. There is so much
in the texture here, for instance in Mercy’s occasional songs, one of which begins
“melancholy as a castrated cat.”
(Copyright Nicolas Birns. All rights reserved.)
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