Saturday, July 04, 2015

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

I don't know when Wolf in White Van: takes place. I don't know how old the main character is. I don't know how much time has passed since the shattering events that changed his life. And I'm not sure if Darnielle knows those things either, or cares: he's always been an instinctual writer, driven by images and quick phrases. (Though that's obviously more germane when writing songs than novels; Darnielle is the force behind the band The Mountain Goats and for long periods of time the only member.)

Sean is a man, perhaps still young and perhaps middle aged. Something horrible happened to him -- to his face in particular -- when he was seventeen, and he's been a hermit on disability payments since then, however long that was. (My best guess is that his accident happened around twenty years before, and that this novel takes place in the first decade of the 21st century -- the Internet exists and has affected Sean, but it still feels somewhat new. That would make Sean about Darnielle's age, and about mine.) Sean now runs play-by-mail role-playing games, all of which he created himself, to supplement his disability income. His major game is a post-apocalyptic survival story called Trace Italian, in which the individual players try to reach the one safe place in future America, the legendary fortress of the title -- but, of course, the nature of a game like this is that there's never any end.

Darnielle tells Sean's story in slow spirals, circling around both a recent tragic event that led to Sean being sued and Sean's own teenage tragedy, telling us a little more about each of those events each time they come back around. This is a short novel, but a deep one: Darnielle isn't interested in external action and driving a plot, but in the deep exploration of Sean's mind and the ways that he interacts with other people, or avoids doing so. It's also really a novel, and not an overgrown song idea, and Darniell's prose is clear and crisp and precise, rolling out inevitably as he gradually lets us see all the things Sean has done and all the things that were done to Sean. He's much more of a natural novelist than most songwriters: his feel for character and situation scales up beautifully to this larger canvas and makes Wolf in White Van something like a huge, impressive Mountain Goats song.

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