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Wolf in White Van: A Novel Hardcover – September 16, 2014
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“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
“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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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. These flashbacks run parallel to his present life, and an incident involving the game.
Sean's life in the book revolves around running Trace Italian (and similar games), a world crafted entirely by Sean in single-page scenarios where every action and outcome has a distinct cause. In the game, he can trace every player's situation to actions they've taken and, to a point, predict which actions they will take next, all based on a deceptively simple cause-and-effect system. The situation involving his game, however, seems to defy this cause-and-effect system to some extent.
His flashbacks, however, seem to be circling the puzzle of this terrible event which has shaped his life.
Vague spoilers begin here (I'm going out of my way to avoid explicitly stating anything), so be warned.
The real beauty of the book, to my mind, is the way it gradually and unobtrusively weaves this cause-and-effect worldview into the book. By the end, we are fully expecting to learn the reason that Sean did what he did, but we're also being told slowly throughout the second half of the book that there isn't one -- or at least, not one that he can remember.
And this brings me back to my theory. At the end of the day, this book left me with a familiar and unpleasant sensation which I instantly (and uncomfortably) recognized.
It's the dark feeling which, when you stand in some high place and look back at the ground, urges you jump. It's a powerful feeling, almost spell-like, and as it passes, you try to justify it -- but you can't.
My theory, completely unfounded though it may be, is that the people who don't understand this book haven't felt that, or perhaps haven't acknowledged it.
If you have, though, you will find that this book evokes that feeling in a less-frightening way. It's beautifully and skillfully written, but it hurts. The revelation that Sean's life was going in a good direction, but that maybe he was just damaged enough to do something horrible for no reason at all, feels true.
Darnielle places us in the mind of Sean Phillips, a severely disfigured man who has dedicated his life post-accident to creating an intricate role-playing game that's played through the mail. The non-linear narrative focuses primarily on two storylines: 1) the background of what happened to Sean and 2) a couple of teenagers who take his game too literally and reach a tragic end.
There's certainly a lot of interesting commentary in here about escapism and loneliness, about the choices we make in life and how people cope with extreme trauma. Darnielle's writing is clever and thought-provoking.
All along I felt as if I should have found it compelling, but I just didn't. I enjoyed some of the parts about Sean's disfigurement and the aftermath of that, but I was completely bored by anything involving the game. (Admittedly I've always had a bit of an aversion to fantasy and gaming, so that could be part of the reason why.)
This is the kind of book that is deliberately obscure and demands reflection. I enjoy books like that, but in this case I just couldn't find the energy to give it the level of thought that other readers have. I'm sure I'm missing a lot, but I sort of just wanted to get it over with.
I read this book over the course of two days and wished there was more from Darnielle to read once I was done. Until his next novel I will have to be content with his beautiful music and the 15 albums his band has put out over the past 20 years.