Constant Reader Book of the Month February 2024: Wilder by Andrew Simonet

David B Morris
9 min readFeb 20, 2024

A Frightening — But All Too Real — Insight Into Male Violence

I’ve ready countless books in which the protagonist comes across as sympathetic initially and turns out to be a monster. I’ve read a similar number where the reverse is true. But Andrew Simonet’s Wilder is the first books I’ve read where our first impression of the protagonist’s vile nature is obvious from the start and that the author does nothing to alleviate the rest of the way. If anything by the time the book is over you realize that this character was never deserving of our sympathy, even if he‘d wanted in the first place. This is something, for the record, he makes clear in the book he doesn’t want.

Jason Wilder, to be clear, also doesn’t like it when you hate him, avoid him or are embarrassed by him either. Jason also doesn’t really like anybody either. At the start of the book he is in the rubber room of his high school because he set off fireworks that led to an arson which led to an eight year old suffering serious burns. He feels no empathy for that child either, something he makes clear in one of many frightening scenes. “He had some scar tissue on his back and hands, but he was totally back to his regular life,” he tells us. That this child will never have anything resembling a regular life again is something that Jason doesn’t seem to get. All he cares about is the consequences which have made his life the way it is.

Listening to Jason, I am reminded of a description Mulder gave off a serial killer in one of the earliest episodes of The X-Files. “Some people are product of their environment. Others are acting out past abuses. Jason Wilder hurts people because he likes it.” This is something Jason makes very clear at a critical point in the novel that eventually leads to him being incarcerated. In fact, he says is the only thing he shows enthusiasm for:

“The things you want, the ideals you hold, the people you love, that’s well and good. What you do when the shit goes down, that decides your future…what separates you from the whiners and yammering grievance keepers.”

The only people who think like this are serial killers, something its very clear by the end of Wilder Jason is well on the way to becoming.

The kindest thing you can say about Jason is that he has nothing going for him. He is growing up in a rundown town called Unionville (we never know what state its in) but it’s clear it’s the kind of town that is proud of the violence it undergoes regularly. Jason’s father is an ex-convict, his mother is an alcoholic who has repeatedly fallen for the wrong men and ruined any chance Jason might have for a future. AT the start of the novel his mother is currently in Florida with her latest ‘loser ex-boyfriend’ and has abandoned her son. This is an irritation to Jason only because the terms of his probation say he has to remain with a parent or guardian, something he has been lying to his teachers about well before the start of the novel. He has been ignoring the mail about this for a while, forging signatures, going through the motions of trying to find employment when all he really does is go from the rubber room to his home and watch TV,

Jason is also, speaking generously, a moron. He knows he isn’t that smart and he knows he has nothing going for him. It’s because he is such an idiot that when he encounters Meili (“That’s her real name” he tells us) in the Rubber Room and she isn’t immediately repelled by him, he grabs on to her like a drowning man to a life preserver. Because she’s not from America and is only passing through Unionville, he thinks he has a clean slate with her. He doesn’t realize from the moment he meets her Meili is only interested in him because she’s so bored that she would cling to anything to make her life interesting.

Throughout the novel, Meili demeans Jason at every opportunity, frequently calls him names, mocks every element of his life and does everything in his power to make his already miserable life worse. It’s clear to the reader but not to Jason, who keeps referring to her abrupt change in subjects and tones as ‘swerves’. The charitable explanation is that Jason has lived such an abusive and miserable life that he mistakes Meili’s interest in him for genuine love.

Jason is obsessed with Meili solely because he has nothing going on in his life. There are warning signs that blind people could see if they paid attention, starting with the fact that Meili is living with guardians and that one of the people who is her ‘caregiver’ is Manny, a man who is a gangster in all but name. Jason constantly makes things worse for Meili, so in one of their last conversations Manny says he has to protect her. Jason takes Meili to his house and they spend the next several days having sex.

It’s clear here that Meili is using Jason out of boredom more than anything else, that she has no use for him beside sex and a target for her own issues. Meili has been moving from town to town for a year because her father, an Asian businessman, is either in criminal trouble or is testifying against the wrong people. Meili isn’t sure and she keeps ‘swerving’ so that Jason isn’t either. Jason doesn’t have the mental capacity to keep up with the kind of stories that Meili tells him and he is a horrible conspirator. But because Meili has not been immediately repelled by his violence, he clearly thinks she’s the only thing he can depend on. He believes at the end of the day, he’s her protector.

The problem is Jason has no idea what being a protector means. Over and over he says he’s misunderstood: “How can I explain that even though I threw the first punch I didn’t start it?” he tells us. In Jason’s eyes any remark that he deems offensive is a reason to get in a fight and as we quickly learn Jason considers basically anything he disagrees with offensive. It’s not like he makes much of an excuse, fighting is what he lives for.

And Jason is such a fool that when he receives a phone call from Meili that sounds like it scares her, he leaves school, drives home and then goes to a local restaurant where he gets to the parking lot, sees Meili’s car parked in so she can’t leave, in his mind that is a justification to go into the restaurant and start hitting people.

Jason then beats the lawyer to a pulp on another perceived slight and the Lackey beats his brains out. Jason actually admires him for it and realizes that for all his abilities as a fighter, in the world Meili lives in he’s purely an amateur. This section is the only part of the novel where Jason shows a real interest in what is actually happening and it’s quietly horrifying. He is so obsessed with violence that when Meili, who now clearly realizes what a monster he is, reacts in horror and wants to get away from him, he honestly can’t believe that she is appalled by him. Meili actually tells him flat out how out of control he is and he can’t accept that fact.

It is a level of how genuinely clueless Jason is that even when he ends up in juvenile detention after everything that happened, he still thinks he’s the good guy here. That he has no one to come and help him, that he has no one to corroborate his story, that he has no defense to his actions other than his own words, does not matter to him. When he meets with his court-appointed lawyer, it becomes increasingly clear that Jason has been lying about many other things and that his fixation on Meili has gotten to the point where he might very well be delusional. Even when his court-appointed attorney tells him outright what Meili said not only at the time but in retrospect, Jason refuses to accept it and actually takes it a reason for more violence.

I realize that in my description of Wilder I may have made it sound a brutal read. On the contrary, I tore through it with the same pace I have of so many other books with protagonists infinitely more sympathetic. Jason Wilder is a monster, or at least one in the making, but as we see is not atypical of so many of the other citizens of Uniondale. Violence seems to be a common theme throughout the book. The town itself is rundown and decrepit with very little to recommend its citizen. Jason also has enough self-awareness to know that he will never leave Uniondale because it is who he is.

In the saddest scene in the book, Jason goes to a party which is being held by college kids. Meili is in attendance but is spending time with a smarter teenager who is clearly more her speed and sends him off to get a drink. As he wanders off, he asks what he’s doing here and realizes that this is Meili’s world, and he doesn’t fit in.

He has a conversation with a college kid who is clearly intoxicated and when she flirts with him, he acknowledges: “I’m shallow and typical.” It is the only time in the entire book he shows doubts and the only time he realizes that he doesn’t belong. He wants to hook up with this girl but he knows he doesn’t deserve her. He can’t even work up the nerve to ask the question. Then Meili intervenes and he realizes he has to go with her. He can only accept her form of love, not someone else’s.

This is Andrew Simonet’s debut novel and he shows a remarkable steadiness throughout. There is absolutely no reason you should feel anything other than disgust for Jason, and there is no time he deserves my sympathy. But there were many times I empathized with him, almost against my will. There are many Jason Wilders in our world, young men prone to violence, towards bigotry, towards abuse. Many of them live in towns like Uniondale and have families like his. Jason Wilder does deserve his eventual fate, I won’t pretend otherwise, but the sad truth is even had Meili not come into his life, it’s hard to imagine him ending up anywhere else. At one point a teacher tries to make a discussion about his future after high school and Jason blows her off. He may be an idiot, but he knows enough not to have dreams or ambitions. The worst thing Meili does to him — and she is never anything resembling nice to anyone in the book — is offer the illusion of hope. She never promised him anything, something he comes to accept by the end of the book at least partially, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was the only good thing in his life at the point. I almost wonder if for Meili this is part of a cycle. Every time she goes to one of these towns, she finds someone like Jason, uses him up and then leaves them behind in a place nearly as bad as Jason’s eventual fate.

Perhaps that is the reason I came away with understanding for Jason at the end of Wilder. In a funny way Jason is a victim — not just of Meili but of a larger world that has no place for him. We hear countless stories of Jasons throughout the news cycle and we dismiss them as ‘deplorables’. Because of where they live or what they think, victims of anything from partisan politics to violence in the media. I don’t like Jason Wilder, but I won’t soon forget him. If our society is to move forward, we must find a way to find compassion for the Jasons in it.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.