Review: Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

20575425>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: October 2014

The way you play Trace Italian seems almost unbearably quaint from a modern perspective, and people usually don’t believe me when I tell them it’s how I supplement my monthly insurance checks, but people underestimate just how starved everybody is for some magic pathway back into childhood. Trace Italian is a mail-based game. A person sees a small ad for it in the back pages of Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—maybe he sees the ad month after month for ages—and then one day he gets bored and sends a self-addressed stamped envelope to Focus Games, and I send him back an explanatory brochure. The brochure gives a brief but vivid sketch of the game’s imagined environment—no pictures, just words—and explains the basic mechanics of play: a trial subscription buys you four moves through the first dungeons, and five dollars a month plus four first-class postage stamps keep a subscription current. I boil down handwritten, sometimes lengthy paragraphs that players send me to simple choices—does this mean go through the door, or continue down the road?—and then I select the corresponding three-page scenario from a file, scribble a few personalized lines at the bottom, and stuff it into an envelope. They respond with more paragraphs, sometimes pages, describing how they move in reaction to where they’ve landed. Eventually they recognize the turns they’ve taken as segments of a path that can belong only to them.


Like the game its story pivots around, Wolf in White Van, the first novel from The Mountain Goats frontman (singer, songwriter, guitarist) John Darnielle, is a labyrinthine construct of allusions and psychological states of being, detailing to some extent the tragic, isolated life of its narrator.

When Sean Phillips was seventeen, living with his family in Montclair, CA, he shot himself in the face with a Marlin 39A rifle. In the years since, following much disquiet within his family, and alongside agonizing physical rehabilitation, Sean has (to some degree) turned his life around. He created Focus Games—a company specializing in the role-playing games of old, where moves are done through the mail via subscription. It’s an archaic style of gaming, but one that engenders a more personal touch and feel, as devoted players become, for the game’s designer, a sort of extended family. The first game Sean developed, the one that serves as the backdrop for Wolf in White Van’s narrative, is called Trace Italian.

Sean first learned of the trace italienne in history class: “the trace italienne involved defensive barricades branching out around all sides of a fort: stars within stars within stars, visible from space, one layer of protection in front of another for miles.” Transposed to the post-apocalyptic landscape of Sean’s own design, the Trace Italian is humanity’s last bastion—a safe place for those clever and determined enough to not only discover it amongst the charred remains of the world that was, but to also successfully navigate its hundreds of sub-dungeons. Technically, the narrator states, it’s possible to get to the near-mythical safe haven at the centre of the Trace Italian and win the game, though he designed it in such a way that no one would ever live long enough to accomplish such a task.

While Sean has managed to eke out an independent living through Focus Games, his players are few; however, they are a dedicated bunch—some dangerously so. And this is where much of the external conflict arises in Wolf in White Van: a pre-trial hearing in which Sean is being accused of endangering minors. He faces charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter in the case of two of his players, Lance and Carrie, who took Trace Italian a little too seriously, becoming trapped in the Kansas wilderness. Carrie died in the harsh environment, while Lance lost a foot and remains in critical condition from frostbite.

Sean’s internal conflict, however, threads every individual facet of the narrative. Darnielle’s novel is like a hedgemaze with its climax ensconced somewhere in the middle, revealed only in the novel’s final pages. The narrative circles Sean’s suicide attempt from both sides, his life before and after the event, never fully laying bare his reasons or even detailing the incident itself. In this way, the novel is somewhat reminiscent of the Christopher Nolan film Memento, which ends in the literal middle of its narrative, but which also serves as the moment that glues the two seemingly disparate halves into a cohesive whole.

At its core, Wolf in White Van is a story of vicarious living—escapism, and creating/fuelling escapist entertainment for others. Its themes are largely of consequence—of accepting it, avoiding it, and learning to deal with the ramifications. Through consequence, Darnielle addresses Sean’s demons: the titular wolf in white van, the characterization of the villainous voices one might hear. But through his disfigurement, he is also externally demonized by those closest to Carrie and Lance, not to mention his own family who’ve struggled for years to understand the whys and wherefores of Sean’s actions. In this sense, Sean is largely sympathetic, though clearly psychologically compromised; he admires iconic characters such as Conan the Barbarian for their outward strength yet feels he exhibits none such resilience, despite his very post-rifle blast existence proving otherwise as he is forced, every day, to bear the scars of his actions to those few friends and family still in his life.

Not surprisingly, there are parallels to some of Darnielle’s music within Wolf in White Van’s DNA—specifically in Sean’s teenage relationship with Kimmy, with whom Sean’s parents suspect he had a suicide pact. While reading, I couldn’t help but see shreds of Cathy and the nameless protagonist from the song “This Year”—Darnielle’s twin high maintenance machines—in the back-and-forth that once existed between Kimmy and Sean, in their youth.

By keeping from the reader the gory details of the aftermath of Sean putting the rifle to his chin, not to mention whatever concrete reasons existed behind this act in the first place, Darnielle has created in his narrator—mirrored by the Trace Italian—a puzzle that can never be solved, only vaguely understood. By the novel’s end, I felt as if I’d come within several inches of the truth, but never fully arrived at a conclusion. In this way Wolf in White Van exhibits a wonderful sense of restraint, placing its priorities with ideas instead of direct answers that only would’ve robbed the narrative of its subtlety. This is one of the best, most engaging books I’ve read all year, and a very self-assured debut.