“I’m pretty sure that’s the lesson there was to learn in the hospital: the main one. And I’m pretty sure my play was the right one to make. Because the unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian’s opening move–that’s me. It’s me. Motionless, ready for something, awake and aware. When the player gets up from the weeds, as he or she always does, because the first move is rigged and all players arrive persuaded that they must act, everything changes: He enters a world where danger’s everywhere. He has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he’s headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain” (20).
Wolf in White Van
207 pages, paperback
Rating: 5 — Personal Classic
John Darnielle, of the band the Mountain Goats, tackles dark and intriguing subject matter in his debut novel, Wolf in White Van. After a disfiguring injury, Sean Phillips invents an elaborate role-playing game that is played through the mail. In the game, Trace Italian, players make one choice per turn as they attempt to find sanctuary in a post-apocalyptic wasteland set in future America. When two high school players decide to act out their Trace plays in real life, Sean is confronted with a court appearance which dredges up his own injury at the age of seventeen and the circumstances surrounding it.
Reasons to Read
Delving into the inner life
While many people try to connect or reconnect with their inner selves, Sean is so isolated that all he has is himself. Through the recovery process of his injury and the hermit lifestyle he has lived since, Sean is deeply in touch with his own thoughts and memories. However, Sean is not a wholly reliable narrator, and the reader often wonders how other characters would interpret the events of the novel. The author, Darnielle, does an excellent job depicting the often chaotic inner dialogue of a fictional person. Reading so much about Sean’s mind certainly made me explore my own inner life and hear my internal dialogue more clearly.
The question of why a person commits a particular action is one that haunts mankind. It is difficult for us to truly understand the actions of others when they are different than what we might do ourselves. Since Wolf in White Van spends so much time focused on Sean’s inner dialogue, the reader is very curious about why he makes the choices he does. Darnielle does an excellent job of convincing the reader to find Sean sympathetic, or at least understandable, while at the same time not necessarily believing he is a trustworthy narrator. After finishing the novel, I’m honestly not sure if I like Sean as a person, but he is an easy to imagine and convincing character.
Aspects that Could Bug You
Light on action
If you’re looking for a mystery novel full of suspense and who-dun-its, then this book will disappoint you. Wolf in White Van is a more focused character study that uses Sean’s story to open up themes of common human experience, like fitting into society, what family is, and how the actions you put out into the world affect it. Darnielle focuses the plot of this novel more on unraveling Sean’s psyche instead of a linear action-based plot.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, of course, but I will say that if you like the endings of novels to tie up the narrative in a nice, neat bow, you’ll be disappointed with the ending of Wolf in White Van. By the time the reader arrives at the event that disfigured Sean it’s not really a surprise, but then again a twist ending is not the point of the novel. The ending is not disappointing in itself, but the novel doesn’t culminate in some big expository, simple moral. And some readers will be really put off by that sort of ending. I, however, thought that the ending fit the novel’s pacing and mood quite well and was satisfied by it.
In Wolf in White Van, Darnielle fashions a complex character study of a man whose psyche has been touched by darkness and whose struggle with that darkness allows him to delve into some of the big questions of humanity. Start reading it for the wildly imaginative game and violent mysteries, but enjoy it for Sean’s willingness to wrestle with even the dark parts of himself; you may find that there is some wrestling you can do within yourself.