Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014; 207 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
I came across the music of John Darnielle’s The Mountain Goats at a time when I needed some form of relief. I imagine many of his fans feel this way, somehow. It was early summer, things were not panning out for me, and I’d reached that stage of young adulthood when you realize that the thing inside of you—that desperate, keening thing—is both the only thing you have for sure and also not nearly enough. Then I heard The Sunset Tree. I’m reminded of a line from Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams: “Life is sad. Here is someone.” That’s what the music meant to me, that there was someone out there who was sure that healing was possible, that one day they would wriggle up on dry land.
His first book, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, which was released as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3rd series, reads as All Hail West Texas reconceived as a novella. Now we have Wolf in White Van, which both draws on themes familiar to his other work while showing how deeply he can disappear into storytelling and character.
The novel concerns Sean, a young man living in the wake of a horrible tragedy that left him severely disfigured. While recovering, he comes up with the idea for Trace Italian, a convoluted role-playing game with the goal of reaching the eponymous fortress in the middle of a ravaged American wasteland. Once he’s out of the hospital, he finds himself an outcast in both his home and the wider world, so he turns instead to managing the game (which is played through the mail) for a group of dedicated players. This is both his way into the world and his way out of it, and the reader gets the sense that it’s the same for the people out there on the other end.
The plot is concerned mostly with the way Sean interacts with the world through the game, and how he takes care of the people who play it. He has his reasons for everything in the game, which, while technically winnable and technically losable, is designed around ensuring that the player’s options are clear and have distinct reasons and consequences. In managing the fate of their alternate lives, he becomes attached to his players in ways that are both troubling for him and desperately needed.
It’s hard not to see parallels between Darnielle’s role as an artist and lyricist and Sean’s role as gamemaster for a bunch of earnest, nerdy kids who are looking for some escape or for a world that makes more sense. Even without that to draw on, Sean’s relationship with the game is complex and resonant, a metaphor that doesn’t feel cheap specifically because Darnielle has done such a wonderful job showing us why Sean needs the metaphor, and how it’s helped him heal.
For me, the novel is at its weakest when it’s trying to answer the why of what happened on the day of Sean’s tragedy, though the impulse to explain is perhaps inevitable. For Sean, the mystery at the heart of that moment is that same desperate, keening thing I already mentioned. Darnielle has created an empathetically wrought character (certainly the most memorable and well-realized person in my year’s reading) and put the reader on his side. When Sean says that he doesn’t know why what happened happened, as a reader, I believe him enough that I don’t need more. It made perfect sense already. The wolf is out there for each of us, in each of us. Sometimes we hear it call.