If you’ve ever listened to the Mountain Goats, you’ll note that John Darnielle’s lyrics are little pieces of novels in their own right.  Some are more thorough — there is, of course, Tallahassee, an entire album that chronicles a failing marriage — but one of the things that brought me to his music is the way that he can so entirely capture an entire story in less than five minutes.  Songs like “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Heretic Pride”, and the seminal “This Year” perfectly encapsulate stories that I would love to hear more of, but at the same time, they are perfect just as they are.

When I heard Darnielle was writing a novel, I was immediately interested.  Wolf in White Van does not disappoint.  It retains the same turn of phrase and language found in many of Darnielle’s songs, but is instead a drawn-out character study centered around Sean, a twentysomething who suffered an “accident” at the age of 17 that left him permanently and gruesomely disfigured.  For the sake of spoilers, I’m not going to actually say what the “accident” is until later in this review, though I will note that that’s a pretty interesting word choice for the actual incident.

Sean is the creator of a role playing game titled Trace Italian, which is centered around the premise of a post-apocalyptic world where characters start in the southwest and travel to Kansas to find the Trace Italian, a fort that will keep them safe.  The game is mail-based, where contestants mail their next moves to Sean and he mails them back in a sort of choose-your-own-adventure style. He indicates early on that nobody has ever been close to beating the game and nobody ever will.  It’s through this connection, though, that we meet a small cast of supporting characters who act strangely as foils in Sean’s world.  There’s Chris Haynes, a young man who, while playing the game, realizes he’s in too deep and requests that Sean allow his character to die, which he writes in his final “move.”  There is also Lance and Carrie, a teenage couple who go deeper than Sean ever imagined.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way it’s structured.  We know Sean has a deformity; it’s the major thing he talks about from the first page onward, but until the end we don’t know what the “accident” actually was (Spoiler alert:  Sean shoots himself in the face.  He doesn’t know why he does it, but it happens, completely of his own volition).  A similar situation occurs with Lance and Carrie.  Things are alluded to, but it’s not until halfway through the book that we get confirmation that Lance and Carrie actually tried to road trip the route of their Trace Italian characters and were lost in Kansas, where Carrie dies due to hypothermia and Lance is left disfigured in a hospital somewhere.  It’s an interesting parallel to draw, since we go through the entire novel hearing of Sean’s rehabilitation process, and Lance’s rehab from frostbite is alluded to as well.  There is also an interesting passage in which Sean tells of how his father wanted to sue the man who sold his family the gun Sean used to shoot himself with, and contrasts that to Carrie’s parents suing Sean for their daughter’s death.  Neither case goes through — Carrie’s is dismissed due to inconclusive evidence and Sean’s father decides not to sue the gun salesman — but it’s important to note that Sean was 17 at the time of his accident, as were Lance and Carrie at the time of theirs.

Wolf in White Van doesn’t have a particular plot, as it instead focuses on Sean’s past and present, but it is still incredibly interesting and meaningful.  This is a book about the struggle that some people have to face reality.  Sometimes it’s just easier to live in your own head, or to disappear into your obsessions and imagination, and while the majority of us are able to snap back between the two and decipher what is real and what isn’t, there are still some in this world who are unable to do that.  Lance and Carrie went too far and were unable to make it back, while Chris Haynes was able to distinguish how the game was affecting him and knew he had to get out.  In the middle lies Sean, who at the age of 17 made a choice that changed his life forever.  It’s almost as if he embodies both sides of the situation.  Sure, we go through the book knowing he did something that altered his path entirely, but we don’t know just what that is until the end.  17-year-old Sean was essentially Lance or Carrie, but adult Sean seems to err more on the side of Chris Haynes.

What does this all mean?  Knowing Darnielle’s past and usual subject matter, I would say it’s a careful parable or a lesson to be learned.  The book will hit too close to home with some readers, as I know it did for me (I’m three weeks away from my 25th birthday and am feeling every bit of a quarter-life crisis coming on).  We are taught to think big thoughts and live out our dreams, but what happens when those situations go negative?  It’s about finding that careful balance between accepting that we are all living, breathing beings who depend on each other while also keeping the creative imagination alive.

There is a particular line in the book that I really enjoyed: “One thing I’ve learned is it’s better sometimes, in the weeds, to resist the temptation to stand up and follow the compass.”  Sean writes this soon after discussing Chris Haynes, but it is essentially the crux of the novel.  Sometimes it’s better to lay low and let situations blow over (certainly as it was in the case of Sean), but other times, whatever is happening in your life may be worth the chance.  Take smart risks, but understand that there are consequences to your actions.  And please, if you feel like you’re in a bad place, know that there are people you can talk to out there who understand your problems, and that many of us have been there before.

Wolf in White Van was just nominated for a National Book Award, a day after it was published on September 16.  It is absolutely deserving of that praise and worth every penny.

Overall Score
97 %

John Darnielle delivers a book that is essentially a drawn-out song, but in the best way.

About The Author

Self-deprecating fundraising lackey, avocado connoisseur, pop culture aficionado, latte-drinking liberal elitist.

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