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Wolf in White Van: A Novel Hardcover – September 16, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1St Edition edition (September 16, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374292086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374292089
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Nominated for the 2014 National Book Award

A New York Times Bestseller

“John Darnielle’s amazing novel digs into an artist’s unspoken fears . . . Like Darnielle’s songwriting, the prose is often cryptic and then stunningly clear, microscopically specific and then audaciously grand. The words soothe for sentences at a time, then strike with blunt force.” —Carl Wilson, Slate

“An electric debut novel.” —O: The Oprah Magazine

“A stunning meditation on the power of escape, and on the cat-and-mouse contest the self plays to deflect its own guilt.” —Ethan Gilsdorf, The New York Times Book Review

“John Darnielle is a great songwriter, tipping light toward every kind of human suffering, and his powers are on full display in Wolf in White Van. The prose lives like Sean’s imagination: a breathing, glowing thing. In Darnielle’s novel, as in his songs, the monstrously true and unbelievably beautiful press up against one another. Together, they begin to dance.” —Carmen Maria Machado, NPR.org

“Possibly the best novel of the year.” —Chicagoist

“What drives Wolf in White Van is Mr. Darnielle’s uncanny sense of what it’s like to feel marginalized, an outsider, a freak. He has an instinctive understanding of fetid teenage emotional states and the ‘timelines of meaningless afternoons that ended somewhere big and terrible’ . . . [A] strange and involving novel.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“An incredible feat.” —The AV Club, (Grade: A)

“[Wolf in White Van] will back you onto your heels with its capacity for inventiveness in structure, story, and line-writing.” —GQ, The Three Big Novels of the Month, September 2014

“A tremendous literary achievement.” —Cristina Fries, Zyzzyva

Wolf in White Van is a novel that unspools rather than reads. Told in a tricky, deftly structured reverse chronology, the narrator, Sean Phillips, backtracks to a traumatic teenaged event . . . Darnielle has a masterful way of putting the reader in the position of reverse engineer. . . [His] is an art that spins pain into gold.” —Emily M. Keeler, The Hairpin

“The best rock novel of the year." —Rolling Stone

“Right up to its tense closing scene, Wolf in White Van is a quietly bracing novel about the power—but also the isolation—of an overactive imagination. Without becoming sentimental or excessively bleak, Darnielle has created an empathetic character study: sustained eye contact with a person from whom most would avert their glance.” —Lindsay Zoladz, Bookforum

“A dark, nerdy delight.” —Paul Constant, The Stranger

“John Darnielle’s brain seems like it runs at just a slightly higher RPM than other people’s . . . [Wolf in White Van] unfolds like a labyrinthine treasure map, one in which the treasure chest keeps moving but you’re careening toward it regardless, and also you’re a little scared of what you’ll find when you get there.” —Emma Silvers, The San Francisco Bay-Guardian

Wolf in White Van will provoke you, and interest you, and move you.” —Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly

“One of the most intense reads of the year . . . surreal, emotionally explosive, and often weirdly funny . . . What makes one person wander into a fantasy world and then wander back out again, unscathed, while another is disfigured by it for life? The way that Darnielle forces you to think about these issues, in a variety of situations, will give you chills. Nothing is more terrifying, and more honest, than a story that acknowledges that there is no bright line between guilt and innocence.” —Annalee Newitz, io9

“This puzzle-like book, riddled with pulp allusions, proves Darnielle’s narrative skill." —Time Out New York (Four Stars)

“[A] powerful novel . . . Darnielle layers invisible causation, or mechanisms of denial, or signs of an unstable personality, into the narrative with enviable subtlety . . . An impressive achievement.” —Sam Costello, Full Stop

“A novel is the next logical step for someone who’s filled 14 studio albums, 23 EPs, and four compilations with relatable characters, dramatic situations, and recognizably literary themes like spirituality, drug addiction, and more . . . [The reading is] compelling, and leaves little doubt that Wolf in White Van is the work of a real writer, not a well-connected blog star.” —Pitchfork

“Beautifully written psychological fiction for sophisticated readers, with not much else like it out there.” —Robert E. Brown, Library Journal

“If ever a first novel landed with a joyful noise, it’s Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle.” —Publishers Weekly

“A pop culture–infused novel that thoughtfully and nonjudgmentally considers the dark side of nerddom.” —Kirkus (starred review) “John Darnielle’s novel moves through the mind like a dark-windowed car through a sleepy neighborhood: quiet, mysterious, menacing, taking you places you will never, never get out of your head.” —Daniel Handler
“Wolf in White Van is utterly magnificent. I was surprised and moved and amazed page after page after page. I am talking about audible gasp type stuff, and also deeper, interior gasps of reflection and astonishment and gratitude. This story is a hard and beautiful human puzzle that will be a pleasure to solve and resolve over many readings. And you can quote me on that. Every day. That is all.” —John Hodgman
“I can’t remember the last time I so willingly followed a narrator into a frame of mind this splintered. (It helps that he’s mostly wry about it.) As you read you waver between suspicions that the world itself is ill-made, and concern that the fundamental fault lies within our very brains. As for the writing, I'd go for anything else Darnielle writes like a shot.” —Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird

Wolf in White Van is John Darnielle's savage genius gone free range. A meditation on monstrosity, isolation, escape, and transformation, this trance of a novel lures us deep into the labyrinth of one young man's imagination. What we find there is alluring and feral, raw, unflinching and exquisite. Absolutely fucking brilliant.” —Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn

“I loved everything about this book. Blisteringly authentic—like a garage-made bomb on a slow-burning fuse, or like Darnielle set out to adapt an old Iron Maiden T-shirt as a literary novel and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.” —Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible and You

“Wolf in White Van is a testament to the ways in which all of us use imagination to survive, and the ways in which that same imagination can take over our lives until there’s little else left. It brings us inside both the reality and the fantasy of day-to-day life in the way that only John Darnielle can. Read this book. You’ll never hold another one like it.” —Joseph Fink, creator of Welcome to Night Vale

About the Author

John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and son.

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Customer Reviews

Read this book if … your body is ready.
Jillian Igarashi
A haunting and moving novel told in a truly unique way, peppered with amazing metaphors and colorful language.
Sean Cavanaugh
If you have, though, you will find that this book evokes that feeling in a less-frightening way.
Carey C. Newhouse

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By RJ Thorn on September 26, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'm not exactly sure how to describe this book. I just finished it-- a quick read, just a day or so-- and, as many other reviewers have noted, it's not exactly that I enjoyed it, it's more that it burrowed into my brain and stayed there for awhile. Darnielle's an exceptional writer in the sense of putting words together in an interesting, reflective, (yes) lyrical way, which is part of what makes the book so hypnotic. Having said that...it felt to me upon coming to the end that there should have been more. Not more plot, necessarily, though no one can argue that this book is long on plot, but more...why. Why did this happen? Why did Sean make the decision he did that changed his life? I think this novel is like falling down the rabbit hole of someone with a mental disorder-- and I think that's by design. The narrator talks in ellipses and leaves a lot of things out, and that creates the illusion that there's something greater to be found, but ultimately it's the fractured story of a fractured personality who somehow came together slightly better after this horrible event than he was before it.

This book is absolutely worth the read, for the lyricism of the writing if nothing else. But it tells essentially a singular story in a fractured way, and that can be frustrating-- though ultimately I felt rewarded for having read it.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Carey C. Newhouse on October 17, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have a theory about people who didn't "get" this book, but it's a bit spoilery, so I'll save it for the end. If you want to avoid all spoilers, and you want the quick-and-dirty of my opinion, here it is: I cannot recommend this book enough, but there's no neat wrap-up, and by the end of the book, you will have some ugly and uncomfortable feelings stirring.

Wolf in White Van begins with a memory, made up of many memories, of the protagonist's father carrying him up the stairs in the aftermath of a terrible incident. We know from the get-go that something terrible is coming, and it short order, we learn that book is driving us closer to that event.

The formatting can be a bit off-putting. Darnielle writes in long, lyrical sentences, in a style which fans of his music will recognize immediately, but it is somewhat stream-of-consciousness. The narrative meanders around events in a way that will drive some readers absolutely crazy, but which seems (to me) to be skillfully employed stream of consciousness. If that's not your literary bag, and you don't love Darnielle's lyrical style already, you may want to avoid this book.

The story is about Sean, a man who makes a living writing and running by-mail role playing games. A player sends him envelopes and subscription fees, and he sends them a scene to play out. They send him their move, and he sends them the next scene, which explains how their move played out and what their new situation is.

Sean has been disfigured by a particular incident which I won't disclose here, and the book spends much of its time slowly revealing the nature of his injuries and the life he leads as a result. We learn about how he started writing his first, favorite, and most profitable game, Trace Italian.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Larry Hoffer on October 1, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'd rate this 3.5 stars.

John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van is quirky and cool, tremendously creative and a little bewildering. How's that for a reading experience?

When Sean Phillips was 17 he suffered a disfiguring injury that left him near death. Even years later, people still stop and stare at him when they see him, and he lives an isolated life, practically estranged from his parents, and apart from periodic errands, he sees only his doctors and a visiting nurse who helps care for him.

While Sean was recovering in the hospital, he invented a role-playing game called Trace Italian, which leads people through a dystopian world full of violence, danger, and risk. Played through the mail, Trace Italian and several other games Sean invented have allowed him to live independently and exercise his creativity. But when two teenagers, Lance and Carrie, get a little too involved in the game and bring it into reality, Sean is forced to account for his game, and examine if he in any way encouraged their actions.

As he reflects upon Lance and Carrie's decisions, Sean also examines his life, and how he got to this point. He explores the impact his injury has had on his everyday existence and his relationships with his family and friends, and tries to determine what his future holds.

I'm not sure why, but I guess I was expecting a book along the lines of Ernest Cline's fantastic Ready Player One—a first-hand look inside of a role-playing game and how it affected both those who play and the creator. But while Wolf in White Van does touch on Trace Italian periodically, this is a far more introspective, brooding study of a deeply flawed and troubled yet sympathetic character.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Reader on September 18, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
When someone crosses some artistic boundary, even between two related forms of storytelling, as Darnielle has done here, it's very tempting to worry they will fail, and that if they fail, that will mean something, somehow devaluing their other work. I was nervous, as I started this book, that it wouldn't be real somehow, that it would be an amateur effort.

Please let me dispel that worry, if you have it too. This is a genuine authentic work in its own right. It deserves to be read. It deserves to be lauded. It is what you want it to be and not what you fear it might have been. The subject matter is serious, so I won't tell you it's a cover-to-cover delight, but you will feel good for having read it.
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