Wolf in White Van
by John Darnielle
2014 • 224 pages • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I feel like I’ve arrived at music’s front porch recently, in the same way that I’ve only recently started taking to film and television in any serious way. My great trouble has long been my childhood focus on the single, which is what happens when you only have access to greatest hits albums and nineties film soundtracks. I learned of the concept of the album in middle school, when I began buying music (baby’s first album: Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. A moment of silence for my half-hearted and unfulfilled punk and goth yearnings as a child), but I just treated all albums like greatest hits albums: I raided them for the songs I liked and discarded the rest, never really thinking of them as a cohesive, coherent unit. This culminated in my finally confessing to a friend that I’d never even heard Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, which I was then claiming as my favorite album, all the way through—at the Atlanta leg of the Viva La Vida tour.
But, in the last few years, I’ve improved. I spent several weekends in college drowsily drinking in Tom Waits’ discography, daydreaming that I was hiding in the rafters while the band played. The album experience, I concluded, was all about atmosphere, and therefore necessarily at odds with my literally single-minded focus. But last Saturday on the train, I listened to Haim’s fantastic Days are Gone and drowsed, just the same as I did with Tom Waits. But “Don’t Save Me” and “My Song 5” drilled into my head nonetheless. Albums are about atmosphere, but song craft is about specificity and distinction. That balance is central to music—at least, modern music released in album form.
Wolf in White Van is also largely about that balance—between atmosphere and distinction. That makes complete sense, given that its author, John Darnielle, who is also the main musician behind The Mountain Goats. The protagonist, Sean Phillips, is in the grips of an extended adolescence, caused by a completely inexplicable incident sometime in his teens that also left him hideously disfigured. Sean himself is in his thirties, making an odd living running Trace Italian, a roleplaying game played over mail. What little plot there is centers around two teenagers who died playing a real life version of the game and the revelation of what Sean actually did to himself. But the story is about how Sean’s imagination both helps and hinders him, especially given the distance his disfigurement has put in every relationship in his life. Darnielle balances the two into a delicate, raw, and painful novel, as Sean, seasoned by the twenty years since the incident, picks at the loose threads in human interaction and his own mind.
I realize this sounds dour, and were Sean a more melodramatic, self-loathing, or traditional hero, it would be. But Sean, like all good dungeon masters, takes the long view of things. There are things he cannot explain—there is no why behind the incident—and things he cannot bear to say. He is not humorless, but very aware of his limitations, boundaries, and the effect he has on someone. While the trial about the two dead players is not dwelled on, it does play a part, and Sean is acutely aware of all the narratives he both plays into (the reclusive game master who corrupted innocent children) and resists (a heavily disfigured man whose game is his main connection with the outside world) all because of how he looks. And Sean’s dim, compartmentalized view of his past selves certainly struck a chord with me, as that’s the only way I can really make sense of who I was (and who I wasn’t) as a child and a preteen without screaming.
Darnielle’s lyrical talents translate easily to prose, giving him the eye for specific detail that I value so much in a writer. The novel opens with Sean recalling a memory of his father carrying him the stairs that is “a cluster memory now: it consists of every time it happened and is recalled in a continuous loop” (3). I’ve never listened to the Mountain Goats, but you can catch a taste of their (or should that be his?) sound and preoccupations in Wolf in White Van. It’s never an easy thing, shifting mediums, and Darnielle does it elegantly.
I rented this book from the public library.
I work for a division of Macmillan.