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Book Review: Wolf in White Van

By (September 3, 2014) No Comment

Wolf in White Vanwolf in white van cover

by John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014


John Darnielle is the composer, guitarist, and vocalist for a twee hipster faux-folk band called the Mountain Goats, and as a songwriter he’s often praised for the complexity and intelligence of his lyrics. Such praise, heaped upon songwriters, has occasionally had the disastrous effect of giving them literary aspirations, so the appearance of Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf in White Van, might cause a bit of eye-rolling among the more world-weary ranks of readers who, they tell themselves, hardly have enough time for real books, without sparing any for novelty vanity-exercises by artistic interlopers.

Darnielle has clearly anticipated such reactions, and his approach has been downright surprising: instead of defensive, thinly-disguised autobiography, he’s kept his head down and written a damn fine novel. Even if you’ve never sampled a local micro-brew (in a Mason jar, of course) while listening to the Mountain Goats in Williamsburg, even, in fact, if you’ve never heard of Darnielle, Wolf in White Van will provoke you, and interest you, and move you.

It’s the story of Sean Phillips, whose entire life has been an ordeal of skin grafts, pain medications, and social isolation due to a disfiguring accident. He’s an intelligent, mordantly reflective man, a voracious reader who’s spent hours lost in the absorption of other people’s fantasies. Sean narrates his own story, but Darnielle presents it in a fractured, nonlinear narrative that unpredictably juxtaposes past and present. In his loneliness and boredom, Sean has created a correspondence role-playing game called the Trace Italian, in which participants receive scenarios in the mail and choose one of a handful of possible outcomes, mailing back their responses (sometimes with just a note, other times with long, fulsome letters), but for every segment detailing the Trace, there are scattered segments detailing the horrors of Sean’s prolonged recovery process, or quite good reflections on Sean’s/Darnielle’s part about the various fantasy arcana Sean encountered as he was growing up:

The Gor books, by contrast, were shameful and garish. The pictures on their covers were pornographic, but in an almost dishonest way: near-nude mutants leering out into the fluorescent air of the drugstore aisle. Willingly or not, they seemed to suggest that maybe you shouldn’t actually be reading these books.

It isn’t long before the reader of Wolf in White Van realizes that some of Sean’s reflections on his past are part of a compulsive avoidance of his present – in which a young couple’s response to the Trace Italian has resulted in a tragedy for which Sean is being held responsible, and for which he blames himself. The presence of this tragedy at the heart of the story reveals the skill of Darnielle’s non-linear narration; we approach the whole thing as haltingly as the Trace’s participants approach their fate in the post-apocalyptic wasteland Sean has so carefully devised and is so reluctant to alter:

Trace Italian had existed long enough to have earned self-determination. I didn’t feel like I had the right to revise it. That right belonged to the younger man who’d written the game, and that younger man was dead. Besides, there were people playing toward the latter moves; the moves had to remain as they were in case anyone ever got there. It seemed almost a moral question.

The appeal of the game, as Sean realizes (and as Darnielle puts with graceful economy), is that in play, unlike in life, the stakes are always visible:

What I came up with for the Trace was elegant, I think, and simpler in function than it felt like in play. The first two turns led directly to a fork in the road and that branched out onto three or four different paths. Three or four in my first, crudest pass: then six paths, then eight. s many as I could stand. The hub of the third turn would be an immense wheel, and you’d pick a spoke that would determine the course of the rest of your life. I saw stars when I thought about it. Usually when people stand at an intersection like the third turn hub they’re not conscious of their position: they don’t know where, in the course of their lives, they stand.

In the Trace you know.

Wolf in White Van is a memorable, haunting story that ends up being as much about grief as it is about personal volition, Sean’s or anybody else’s. It’s a smart and thoroughly accomplished novel, and an utterly remarkable debut. If Darnielle ever needs a full-time career outside of music, he has one ready and waiting for him.