Author: John Darnielle
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: September 2014
This review was originally published on The Stake.
With his first novel, John Darnielle has migrated into a new medium, a journey that was no great leap. The creative force behind long-running band The Mountain Goats, Darnielle is no stranger to storytelling. I’m a devoted fan, so it’s inevitable to look for similarities or shifts in voice, style, and content. Wolf in White Van, centering on a young man with a disfiguring facial injury, is a story of psychological exploration clearly birthed from the same fertile fields of the mind that writes songs like “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” and “New Monster Avenue.” It’s about small moments, hidden meanings, and the contours of our inner lives.
Even though the main character, Sean Phillips, lives in social isolation, his tale is not one of mopey self-loathing. Nor is it a self-affirming, renewed-joy-in-living account of someone in recovery (even if Sean does sometimes feel an affinity to Conan the Barbarian). Throughout the book, which can be read as an extended diary, the protagonist seeks only to chronicle and understand. More specifically, he struggles to understand others’ need for understanding (his need for self-understanding is mostly obscured to him, even if apparent to the reader). The people closest to Sean, especially his mother and father, desperately need reasons, to be able to explain the root of things, to know the causes that led to the physical trauma that put their son into an extended hospital stay. Sean witnesses others’ attempts to “draw some lesson from a place no lessons were.” He wavers between this idea that no lessons exist and his own curiosity about whether there could possibly be a narrative to frame his situation.
To this end, Sean finds comfort in his own uses of fiction. The book jumps among a few key years, and the younger Sean was absorbed in favorite movies, books, or albums (always on cassette tape), which sustained him. Later, in his post-trauma state, he is “faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit.” He survives by giving life to a rough sketch in his brain, and eventually constructs a full world in the form of Trace Italian. This play-by-mail game is set in a post-apocalyptic America where the main goal is to reach a stronghold in the middle of the Kansas wasteland. Sean is the creator-god, writing and sending an array of text-based “turns” for his paying subscribers to choose from. He makes an independent living, but more importantly he taps into something in others that he knows he feels himself:
Who doesn’t want to rise above the obstacles in his pathway? Who wouldn’t want to go down in flames? And for those of us who can’t or won’t rise above, who doesn’t at least want to hear stories about how it might be possible for some triumph to eventually happen, given enough luck?
The images and themes in Sean’s mind—which extend into his invention, Trace Italian—are pure Darnielle. Here is where existing fans will find familiarity: in the snippets of mythology, in the flash of backstory about a lone conqueror, a pile of skulls, a band of weary travelers. Ancient signs and symbols that hint at former lives; animals that prowl through dark ruins. Codes on cave walls and maps that lead… where? In his songwriting, Darnielle often reflects on how humans engage with the mystery that confronts them, especially in dire circumstances. Here, he writes his protagonist as someone who admits, “I think sometimes I hear things as riddles that aren’t really riddles.” Through his game, Sean makes meaning because he sees so little meaning around him. Yet for all the wandering of his mind, he is reassuringly level-headed in his zen-like quest to know himself, as well as accept the outward ripples he accidentally creates.
Because while the intentions of Sean’s fictional world are good, its effects spiral uncertainly. Some of the most directly satisfying parts of the novel are the chunks of Trace Italian placed throughout—including the text of full “turns” and the letters that players write back when making their moves—as well as the unsettling feeling the reader gets about what the game has inspired. In his attempt to create something genuine and complete, it’s possible some of Sean’s intensity has seeped into the psyche of a few unique players. When he finds himself involved in a legal case, he pierces deeper into the shapes and sounds of the game, its basis in his mind. How deep is too deep? Are there places where no one can really go? Are there games that are simply too difficult to win?
When Sean reflects on his game, he tells about the origin of the concept and says “there is something fierce and starved about first ideas.” It’s easy to see how the book itself may have been a first idea that took hold in John Darnielle’s mind some untold number of years ago. The fierceness is there, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges (Sean again: “Sometimes I have trouble finding the edges”). The tenacious writer has hundreds of songs to his name (“prolific” falls short here) and I don’t think it’s a disservice to call Wolf in White Van an extension of that songwriting, something that simply wouldn’t fit into three and a half minutes. The style is conversational, fluid, with scenes that fold in on themselves then out again. While a couple sections are belabored—a meditation on cleaning out the medicine cabinet is not as moving as intended—others deliver the frisson of a lyric spun over a perfect melody. A scene of the wary, older version of Sean connecting with two teens in a liquor store parking lot over the topic of his hideously scarred face amazes in its detail and graceful humanity.
The small moments of personal revelation are the heart the story. While the novel does finally swirl toward the moment of violence that changed Sean’s life, the traumatic events are mostly placed outside the central narrative. Darnielle is not interested so much in the television cliffhanger—the exploding car, the spray of blood, the horror clang of minor chords when the monster jumps out. These are taken for granted. They happen, will always happen. Instead, he wants to explore all the other moments that radiate backward and forward from those sudden dramatic fractions of time.
If you were to play Trace Italian, you would read the game’s opening scenario, in which you wake up alone in a bitter wasteland. Like it or not, you are still alive. Sean’s directive is clear: “You may now make your first move.” Your mind must direct your body, and there is no time to reason out every alternate path ahead or every motive pushing from behind. That comes later. People fill in the gaps when it suits them, and you may realize “that maybe people do things for no reason, that things just happen, that nobody really knows much.” This is simply the world you are in.
For now: just make your move.