Book Review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
Words By Samuel J. Dymerski
“Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark room… I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick.”
For fans of The Mountain Goats, it’s not a terrible stretch to have guessed that one day frontman John Darnielle would try his hand at the craft of novel writing. Darnielle can, in fact, be seen as a natural writer at this point in his career—writing short stories in lyrical form—a novel appears a perfectly natural next step for the lyricist.
Wolf In White Van centers around Sean, who after what is often referred to as an accident at age seventeen, is left with an outward visage somewhat reminiscent of Project Façade—made ostensibly a modern iteration of Hugo’s Quasimodo or Leroux’s phantom (“I worry you’ll be lonely” says Sean’s mother, to which he responds “I was going to be lonely anyway”).
After his reconstruction, Sean understands that he will never truly be able to properly communicate again, and as a response, develops the Trace Italian: a world built and expressed through letters to its cooperative players. Through the world of the Trace, Sean is allowed a renewed communication with the outside world in a strange way. Through the Trace, Sean learns of the lives of the players in a sort of invisible and one-directional interaction.
This aspect of the narrative paints a beautifully dualistic picture of modern escapism, the likes of which any avid reader or moviegoer or video game player will be able to understand: it makes a lofty note on the promise and hope in escapism, but also speaks of its wounding, alienating, and even life-threatening potential. Sean’s life is given new meaning in creating the Trace Italian, but after the drastic alteration the world of the Trace enacts on two children, the reader is left questioning which force is at fault: is the blame Sean’s for making the Trace, or is it the kids’ fault for taking such haphazard stock in this fiction?
The Trace Italian’s influence at this point is less of a fantasy than it is a dangerous fact: it befits certain individuals more than it does others, and it is in the harsh and unpredictable nature of the Trace that the reader learns the ramifications of the reckless imagination. The world the kids so readily buy into proves more dangerous than that which they aimed to escape, and Sean is left with the responsibility of his creation—now such a long-ago phantasm he hardly sees it as his own (“There are games I’m prouder of than Trace Italian,” he regards, “but it doesn’t matter how I feel”).
Upon finishing this novel, something admittedly strange occurred. I sat at my desk, novel in hand, and looked at it for a minute or so, contemplating what exactly it was I had spent the past few weeks reading. This wasn’t a question aimed at the novel’s quality, but more of its topic and discussion. This book is an absolute sucker punch to the pathos: the reader will inevitably grow attached to Sean, and this attachment will inevitably result in some truly devastating moments as he backpedals through his memories. In the end, Sean and the reader both are left with that most poignant of quandaries: “what if”. The aftertaste of Sean’s story is a melancholic hope, though maybe more representative of the first qualifier than the second: it is impossible to ignore the dramatic alterations made to Sean’s life, but his ability to deal with these changes resonates strongly with something of a mantra in Darnielle’s more recent work—“just stay alive”. There are questions left unanswered, and the future is rendered terribly hazy and nebulous, but in the end this is seen as ultimately quotidian—it’s just the way things are now, and as Sean himself remarks, “you either go forward or you die”.
Wolf In White Van is not an easy novel to read. Dealing in controversial and driving philosophical discussions, the reader may well be prompted to step away for time to think. But if there is anything truly guaranteed about this novel, it is this: if the reader is to leave, they will not do so without returning. This is the highest testament to Darnielle’s mastery of storytelling: that he can portray such a visceral, stinging work, and to have the reader return and enjoy it in spite.