Wolf in White Van is a 2014 fiction novel by John Darnielle, American musician and primary member of the band the Mountain Goats. The story follows Sean Phillips, a reclusive game designer whose face has been disfigured ever since suffering a gunshot wound when he was 17. His games are play-by-mail role-playing games, exploring post-apocalyptic futures and fantastical realms. After two players of his game Trace Italian take their play into the real world, with grave consequences, Sean is brought in to account for it, sending him down a path a self-reflection to that fateful day where his own life permanently changed.
Of all of Darnielle’s novels that have come to my attention, I must admit that this book, his first, actually interested me the least. My experience listening to the author on a podcast series, however, made me want to read all of his books, so I felt obliged to pick this up anyway. Though promising some intrigue, the premise just didn’t grab me the way his others have. I’m happy that I made myself read this one next, however, as it managed to be a more emotionally complex read for me than I was expecting.
After I was finished with it, I found I needed more time to process it than I do with other books. I wasn’t even sure how much I liked it, to be frank, but it left me in an altered emotional state that I had difficulty pinning down, so I knew it was ultimately something a little more special to me, even if the novel didn’t evoke positive feelings. Even now, I’m not 100% certain I fully comprehend all that the book was trying to communicate with me, as Sean’s stream of consciousness takes the reader from the present, to the recent past with the trial, to his adolescence before and after the incident, much of it spent in hospital, and all the way back to his childhood.
It wasn’t always clear to me from what vantage point I was reading about Sean’s perspective, whether it be him reflecting on how certain events unfolded or whether we are being situated entirely in that past moment, or a mixing of the two. Sometimes it was definitely obvious, but it had a bit of a disorienting quality to it as well, which I feel was deliberate and definitely did help in setting the mood of the story, but I do wish things had been a little more clear all the same.
For a while, the plot had an air of mystery to it, with the details surrounding two of the players of Trace Italian being slowly revealed to us through fragments of details from court proceedings and eventually his correspondences with them prior to the tragedy. At first, I was worried this would lead the story down a more predictable path involving Sean as an unreliable narrator, being altogether more involved than initial details tell us. While he may be unreliable in some respects, what I feared would happen was not the case, the story as a whole not truly having all that distinct of a plot to speak of, which is actually to its credit as a more meditative piece.
What I enjoyed most were the sections of the book that focused on his games, with the most being revealed about Trace Italian, for obvious reasons. The ways he set about crafting his worlds and the different moves his players could make and how he has considered each player’s decisions were the most engaging, a factor which ties in substantially with the novel’s ruminations on escapism and the people who seek it; the reader is offered an attractive escape from Sean’s real life, mired as it is with disfigurement, isolation, and family dysfunction.
As far as characters go, Sean is the only one with any significant amount of dimension. Different figures hold places in his life or come and go, but we only deeply come to understand him. This ties in nicely with the feelings of isolation the text creates, capturing either his difficulties coping in his youth before incident or his strangely hermetic life when living on his own as an adult. He’s of a slightly older time than when I grew up, so our experiences don’t quite line up on the surface, but I can relate to his meditations on the media that held his attention growing up all the same, such as the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian or his idiosyncrasies with how he would watch TV late into the night or listen to music.
I suppose what I feel still eludes me about this book is Sean, despite the ability to relate. While I found myself able to understand to the atmosphere around his troubles and yearning for escapism, I am left troubled by the question of what brought him to the point of the incident. What went so wrong? This is meaningfully echoed in the plight of the two players of Trace Italian, whose shared tragic departure from sense is also left unexplained, leaving only pieces left to be salvaged in its wake.
Though I have made reference to something elusive to me about Wolf in White Van more than once, it ultimately speaks to a positive compulsion to read the book again, which is a true rarity for me. Even if I never do, though, I still found the book to be an absorbing rumination on both the desire for and power of escapism and what exactly we might be seeking in the pursuit of it. I also really liked the depiction of Sean’s disfigurement, as it explores the ways it affects his daily life and how people view him, a constant reminder of the incident, but not in a way that only focuses on how he suffers as a result. It may not be the most joyous reading experience, but if it resonates at all it’ll stay with you.
My Rating: 4 out of 5