Emory Hughes’ life is anything but enviable. He works full-time in a dead-end insurance job, takes care of his mother who is slowly dying of AIDS, and mourns the rift that grows between himself and his younger sister. There is precious little time for Emory to attend to himself, let alone make a friend. Perhaps that is why he allows himself to indulge in the odd trip to the viewing rooms at the adult store in town. And perhaps it’s Emory’s isolation that gives him a spark of empathy for the serial killer whose capture is being splashed across every newspaper across the nation—Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s not the murder or the cannibalism that appeals to Emory, it’s the way Jeffrey and Emory share the same stark solitude and the same deep desire to connect with someone, anyone, without fearing abandonment.
When Tyler Kay lands a job working for an insurance company, he’s not quite sure what to make of his new mentor, Emory. The man is several years older and painfully quiet. Yet something about the man captures Tyler’s interest. They bond over pizza and a shared love of horror movies—but the horror cuts a little too close to home when Tyler discovers Emory has a secret infatuation with Jeffrey Dahmer. Suddenly, Emory’s quiet intensity takes on new meaning and Tyler decides to step back.
Emory’s and Tyler’s paths soon diverge and don’t cross again until months later when they both happen to visit the same bar on the same night. Both men have changed, but the differences in Emory are stark and severe…and not entirely unwelcome. Tyler still feels drawn to Emory and decides to give him another chance, whether it be for romance for friendship. However, getting a fresh start is no guarantee of a happy ending for Emory or for Tyler.
There are two reasons I chose to read a book that features Jeffery Dahmer as one of the through-lines. First, my family relocated to Wisconsin in 1991 and, during a trip to the supermarket with my dad 1991 or 1992, some kid waltzed up to my dad and asked “Sir, are you Jeffrey Dahmer?” Second, the podcast Your’re Wrong About covered Jeffery Dahmer in an episode I listened to recently. Also, I just realized I share a birthday with the man…so there are these odd tangents between my own life and this one aspect of the book.
Even if you don’t have such tangential connections to the famous serial killer, I still highly recommend The Man from Milwakuee. It’s a thriller set in the early ‘90s that keeps the reader guessing and doesn’t just tie up loose ends, but gives a sense of true closure for the characters involved. I found Emory and Tyler to be very relatable and appreciated how Reed focuses on the most prominent aspects of each character, without making any character feel flat. For example, it is patently clear that Emory has trouble bonding (or maintaining bonds) with people. When his mother dies and his increasingly estranged sister finally moves out entirely, Emory is free to indulge in his habit of writing letters to Dahmer, who has recently been captured and awaiting trial. Emory works hard to cultivate this relationship, which becomes very meaningful to Emory and, he hopes, to Dahmer as well. While they may not share murderous tendencies, Emory absolutely feels a lonely kindred spirit in the killer. He even turns to the man for help with his personal life once Emory accepts that he is romantically attracted to Tyler.
Tyler is depicted as almost the polar opposite of Emory. In that regard, I think readers can anticipate some elements of opposites attract. Certainly, Tyler is aware that Emory is older and far more staid a man than he would usually pursue. Young, well off, and social, Tyler nevertheless feels drawn towards Emory. I particularly liked how clearly Tyler was drawn to (if nothing else) the idea of Emory—especially when they were not in the same physical location—but questioned what he liked about the older man when he and Emory engaged as a romantic couple. To me, this reflects many real-world experiences where the idea of someone is very appealing, but the reality is different.
I think it is important for readers to understand that this story is, I believe, a thriller rather than a romance. For me, my initial understanding of the “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic was firmly entrenched in the typical romance model…either Emory and Tyler will find a way to be together, or they won’t. That slowly evolved into a “will-he-or-won’t he” dynamic. For Emory, I was wondering if/when he might start engaging in the kinds of behavior Dahmer did. For Tyler, I was wondering if/when he might become a victim. The effect left me on tenterhooks and I was pleasantly surprised to watch events unfold in a way that let me root for both Tyler AND Emory. And miraculously, Reed still manages to deliver a satisfying ending for everyone.
Overall, I think this is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in thrillers. The prose also features unreliable narration and, as a reader, I loved seeing how my own biases and expectations affected how I interpreted the events in the story. I think Reed made it easy enough for readers to guess the nature of the unreliable narration and it was satisfying to have my suspicions confirmed on page. And through it all, we have a small, but well-defined, cast of characters, each playing their part in a way that ties the whole plot together very neatly.