Book: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014)
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction
Signs You’ll Enjoy This Book: You like roleplaying games, old fantasy novels, and explorations of people’s mental states.
Content Notes: Self Harm, Suicide Attempt
“Reactor five, visible from S.R. 60 just past the Grove Avenue exit, was collapsing. Radiation sickness traveled on poison winds through tract home neighborhoods; within a few weeks, most in the region were too sick to work, and within a few months over half of them were dead. Neighboring counties began raiding the afflicted region for supplies; the contaminated goods they brought back served as mobile hosts for the burgeoning mutation. The age of empire had entered the first gasps of its terminal phase.”
When I started hanging out with my husband, he introduced me to The Mountain Goats, a band fronted by John Darnielle. Darnielle’s songwriting is full of surprising imagery and literary references, often with dark tones against lo-fi indie/folk-inspired instrumentals. When we found out that Darnielle is also an author, we knew we’d be checking out his books. I bought and read his second novel, Universal Harvester, a couple of years ago. I found it interesting and uncomfortable. Definitely a book I want to re-read in order to solidify my opinion.
Recently, Michael decided to read Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s debut novel. I wasn’t sure if I could work it into my reading schedule, but as Michael relayed parts of the plot, I decided to make time.
Wolf in White Van follows Sean, who creates mail-in roleplaying games and makes a living off of subscription fees. The book takes place in the early 2000s, when the internet was getting big, but was not quite what it is today. Sean is somewhat surprised that the internet hasn’t killed his business, but he figures that a certain type of person will always be attracted to this type of slow-burn game. Which is great for him, because there aren’t a lot of “traditional” jobs that suit him.
Sean’s face is disfigured from an incident when he was 17, which was at least 20 years ago. He is largely independent, living on his own with the help of a caregiver who visits him regularly and takes care of things like grocery shopping. He has a strained relationship with his parents, who were his full-time caregivers during his recovery. We get an insightful illustration of the impact of both physical and mental injuries, as well as a glimpse of how taxing caregiving relationships can be on all involved. Sean is grateful to his parents for caring for him, but he wants a very different life than they want for him, so the two parties clash. This doesn’t make Sean bitter against his parents, but he accepts that everyone’s better off if he doesn’t coexist with them.
The book starts out with the description of a painting that Sean saw every night in his parent’s hallway as his father carried him to his bedroom after he returned home from the hospital. It happened so many times that the memories have blurred together into one “cluster memory…innumerable identical scenes layered one on top of the other like transparencies.” Sean describes the painting in the hallway as an optical illusion. It was always the same, but from different angles, certain details could surprise you. I thought this was a great depiction of both how the details of our lives blend together, and how things we see every day still warrant inspection and consideration.
The plot of Wolf in White Van is extremely nonlinear, to match Sean’s thoughts and memories. We bounce around in time, with Sean living his daily life, remembering recent events as well as the distant past. The two main climactic events of the book are a lawsuit involving 2 teenagers who took Sean’s game too seriously, and the incident that left Sean disfigured. The story weaves around these two events, showing us the aftermath and the lead-up in ways that keep a certain level of suspense as we piece together what happened. We also get snippets of Sean’s most successful roleplaying game, The Trace Italian, which takes place in a post-nuclear apocalyptic future. Because Sean introduces the idea of his unclear memories blending together and jumping around in his head, the book manages not to be confusing. There are a couple scenes that have ambiguous placement in the timeline, but the order of events isn’t super important. I’m almost certain there are scenes that could be interpreted as either present day or a distant memory, and the book may not have a “correct” answer. I enjoy this ambiguity and feel that it functions to prioritize Sean as a character more than the timeline of events.
The book also features actual text from the turns of The Trace Italian, as I’ve copied in the introduction quote above. Sean explains his inspirations for certain settings and scenes, his processes, and why he makes the choices he does. The game is planned out, with turns written in advance, and players are given options for different paths to take. Sean customizes people’s experiences, allowing them to take the game where they want it to go as long as he can stay faithful to the established rules and world. Honestly, the game sounded super fun, and I’d love to see more of that world.
This book got me thinking about how our imaginations work a lot. Sean recalls fantasizing in his backyard as a kid, acting out scenes inspired by Conan the Barbarian. Though my childhood fantasies were drastically different, I remember the world changing shape and I’d be transported from wherever I was into a world of my creation. Though Sean is largely caught up in his own worlds, he realizes that other people’s worlds are different, and he allows for this in his games. He lets people’s imaginations guide their own experiences and doesn’t feel bitterness when people get tired of the game or decide they don’t like the direction. He is happy to help them escape for a while, and feels that the fact that the games are temporary does not diminish their value. This fits with Sean’s overall approach to life, not pushing his worldview on others, but simply trying to exist with his own views and beliefs.
Sean talks a lot about how the Conan books and similar fantasies shaped his life, in both positive and negative ways. Even before the incident, he didn’t really fit in with the world around him. He was picked on at school for seeing things differently, as shown in a scene where a teacher asks everyone to make a list of what they want to be when they grow up. While everyone else picks careers, Sean lists fantastical options like “marauder” and “power of flight.” This memory reminds Sean that he is half-true to his beliefs. He won’t sell them out, but he’ll silently fade into the background rather than take the spotlight to defend them.
Sean’s methods of escapism are as much a part of the plot and his life as the world and people around him. Darnielle plays with fantasy and reality in a really engaging way. Sean uses fantasy as a coping mechanism, but it also can serve to alienate him from those around him. After his injury, Sean threw himself into developing games, and drifted away from the few close friends he had. I really enjoy that we see Sean from two perspectives: how outsiders see him and how he sees himself. He understands that people are uncomfortable with his appearance, and he tries to mitigate that as much as possible. At the same time, he’s just a guy trying to live his life. His disfigurement certainly affects his life, but it doesn’t define him.
Wolf in White Van is a book I can see reading again and again. It takes you out of the mindset you’re comfortable in and invites you to examine things from different angles. It portrays one individual’s experiences in a way that is far from universal, but still remains accessible to a wide audience. I definitely recommend checking it out!