- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (September 1, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1250074711
- ISBN-13: 978-1250074713
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 0.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (232 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #45,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wolf in White Van: A Novel Paperback – September 1, 2015
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This month's Book With Buzz: "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers "In a Dark, Dark Wood" and "The Woman in Cabin 10" comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, "The Lying Game." See more
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“A stunning meditation on the power of escape, and on the cat-and-mouse contest the self plays to deflect its own guilt.” ―The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
“[Wolf in White Van] will back you onto your heels with its capacity for inventiveness in structure, story, and line-writing.” ―GQ
“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.” ―NPR
“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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Top customer reviews
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.
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.
The book's first-person protagonist is Sean Phillips, an isolated man now in his forties, who at seventeen failed to commit suicide in a spectacularly grisly manner, leaving him badly facially disfigured and in chronic pain. The plot works like an archaeological dig of the roots of Sean's self-injury, starting in the present day and delving tentatively back along the branching path of his recovery.
We learn (in roughly reverse order) that Sean--a geeky, unpopular teen who enjoyed fantasy novels, role-playing games, and prog rock concept albums--kept himself sane through the long early months in the hospital and living as an invalid in the poisoned atmosphere of his parents' home by designing an elaborate post-apocalyptic play-by-mail role-playing game called Italian Trace, which he advertises in magazine classifieds and earns a modest income from; that shortly before the novel opens, an inquest has just ended into Sean's possible culpability in the death and serious injury of two avid players, a young couple from rural Kansas who got a bit carried away in their play; that aside from his home-care nurse, his parents, and the few remaining long-term players of his game, Sean has practically no human connection to the world.
The structure of the game functions as the book's extended metaphor--the way in which Sean pictures the many different decision-trees that led him to his hideously constricted present, the nodes where he chose poorly and thus permanently foreclosed an infinity of possible futures; the momentous path he took on a whim, without understanding why, in a moment of adolescent angst--a moment his parents and few friends try to invest with great meaning and portent, not grasping that it was just a mistake, a stupid, wrong decision whose ramifications couldn't be fathomed by a lonely young man with the limited wisdom of his years. The "Wolf in White Van" of the title refers to a lyric that one can purportedly hear if one plays an album by Christian rocker Larry Norman backwards, and points to that innate human need to find meaning, even in palpable meaninglessness.
So the big reveal--I am a suicide survivor (how I loathe the self-regarding melodrama of that term), and though my physical damage was mostly internal, rather than external, I went through a long recovery, a long, self-excoriating trip through the wilderness, in which I had to examine myself and decide what to do, where to go, how to get out of bed in the morning and face people and my own image in the mirror. Though I was almost a decade older than Sean, I was still an immature adolescent who was forced to grow up because the alternative was literally untenable. This book made me so sad, so full of longing and knowing, and rang so true on every level. Thank you, John Darnielle, for writing this unique, lapidary novel. It tells the truth as only the best fiction can.