Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The short review? Songwriter writes book. Book digs a bit deeper into some of songwriter’s peccadilloes. People who like songwriter’s work will like book. EXEUNT.
I have to admit I was predisposed towards liking this book given that I am a fan of Darnielle’s music. Knowing how good the writing is in The Mountain Goats – an eclectic, honest and nerdily funny combo who’ve produced some of the best songs about a) peanuts, b) relationship decline, c) abusive adolescence and d) insurance fraud ever (I’m not covering goths, road trips, wrestling, Michael Myers or religion here, but take my word for it, they’re there) – I expected good things.
I actually put off reading this for a while, as I suspected I might have self-hyped the book up too much. After all, this was Darnielle’s first proper novel (a keen metalhead, he’d already written a tome on Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality – fuck yeah ‘Lord Of This World’ – that featured similar ideas and a story-driven approach to music criticism) and so I was wary.
Turns out – after I was stuck with no in-progress book and some time to kill on my Kindle – I shouldn’t have been worried at all.
Characterisation is big in Darnielle’s musical work, and that particular muscle is flexed pretty hard here: Wolf in White Van (a reference to backmasking) features a metal-as-fuck protagonist who’s somehow survived shooting himself in the face.
That’s Sean. Sean runs a play-by-mail RPG called Trace Italian, in which players traverse an apocalyptic world in search of sanctuary. This game – something developed in the long recuperative process following his shooting – is its main character’s escape from trauma, and the bringer of new disaster. Two youths have died, ostensibly playing the game in real life, and the highly constructed world of Sean’s game and mind have had to interact with the real world.
The whole book hangs on Sean’s character, really; his at-best shocking visage, the fairly cloistered life he now leads, and his explanations of the game that is his millstone and his escape. The writing is neatly transparent: there’s a sense of removal from the world. Though the narrator’s face – its weepings, its strange noises, its confronting appearance – is often described, there’s the sense that Sean is speaking to us telepathically. He’s there, but distant, almost something imagined. There’s a feeling of restraint: of an enormous amount of feeling, of pain being withheld within that cool narration. It’s weirdly effective, and bridges some of the disjointed feelings I had as the story progressed.
The concept of hermetic knowledge seems important here: Sean’s the holder of the truth about the game, while all his subscribers (and his parents, let’s face it) attempt to scale its edifice, to breach its boundaries. But more than that, though the book leads to the events that brought about Sean’s disfigurement, we’re never given explicit reasoning why. Just like everyone else making their moves via mail, we’re in the dark, attempting to make the right combination of turns to reach a definitive core.
(I like that there’s some maybe tongue-in-cheek ideas floating around about hidden messages in a book that’s named for a hidden message. )
At its heart, Wolf in White Van is a book for (and by) a very specific type of nerd. You’ll have heard the albums, and you’ll know your way around a D20. And you’ll read this and love it.