Book Review: John Darnielle's "Wolf in White Van" Teens, Wolf, and Other Feral Creatures

According to John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van isn’t just his first novel, but his first attempt at one. This is an important distinction. While the odds of having one’s first novel published are infinitesimally small, the odds of not having a desk drawer or hard drive full of failed starts and flawed drafts are smaller still. Perhaps this fact is less surprising or unlikely considering the near-compulsive proliferation of Darnielle’s previous works, though his extensive back catalog — from his material as The Mountain Goats, to his columns in Decibel, to the 33 1/3 he wrote about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality — falls mostly under the loose banner of creative nonfiction, and as such Wolf in White Van is, for its author, an excursion into uncharted territory. And as should be expected of first-time novels, the book is a mixed bag: potent, sharp, even electric at times, but also often distant, cold, and, for much of its 207-page duration, deliberately withholding.

The structure of Wolf in White Van hampers the novel with most of its shortcomings. Centered on Sean Phillips, a disfigured role-playing gamemaster with a troubled past, the first half of the novel doles out the necessary details sparingly. Instead, Darnielle focuses on Phillips’s emotional and physical experiences as he recovers from an undescribed trauma, beginning to rebuild his life in its wake. The book moves through time in a non-linear fashion, though it moves backward, generally, as it progresses. After a few chapters spent establishing his protagonist’s troubled existence, Darnielle teases his audience with a second under-explained plotline involving the tragic circumstances of Lance and Carrie, two players of Trace Italian, the post-apocalyptic game of long-distance correspondence that Phillips oversees. The pertinent details in both stories are eventually filled in, but narrative reticence in the early sections of the book strains the credulity of its earnest first-person perspective. How can the reader get such a clean view of Sean’s emotional state when they are held at an obvious distance? What tone of naturalism can be sustained when the frame is so artificially cropped?

As should be expected of first-time novels, the book is a mixed bag: potent, sharp, even electric at times, but also often distant, cold, and, for much of its 207-page duration, deliberately withholding.

Once Darnielle ceases to avoid the explication of crucial moments in his characters’ lives, the novel strikes upon an unsettling groove. For much of the book, he seizes upon the anti-occult, anti-subculture fervor of the 80s much like a bloodhound would a wounded game bird: with teeth and a biological sense of purpose. For a while there, Wolf in White Van appears to have corrected course. The mystery around which the story is structured is explained, at least somewhat, by the novel’s halfway mark. Once that veil is lifted, the novel becomes an investigation of its doomed characters’ motivations, as well as the dangers and rewards of role-playing, fantasy, and escapism writ large. Through this investigation, Darnielle draws an important parallel between those who game, read fantasy, and listen to metal, and those who oppose such profane and unproductive activities and interests. That which incentivizes escape into the realms of the unreal also protects itself through the scapegoating of the unreal. It’s easier to blame RPGs and guitars for what happens to those who play them than to confront the existential despair that impels young people to hideout in basements, bedrooms, and garages.

As could be reasonably expected, the book is bursting with lived-in details: Krull, Circus Magazine, Robert E. Howard, Yes’ Relayer, the Gor series, and Larry Norman and the Trinity Broadcasting Network all feature prominently in the book. Darnielle’s native familiarity with 80s nerd culture is one of Wolf of White Van’s greatest strengths, but even more important than credibility or authenticity, the book succeeds as a result of the nonjudgmental empathy it extends to all of its characters. There are no political points foregrounded in this novel; Darnielle focuses instead on the difficult lives of his characters, drawing them with empathy, if not fondness, even while systematically crushing their dreams and ruining their lives beyond the point of repair. Wolf in White Van is filled with “a ravenous grief for nice boys who are too stupid to take care of themselves,” the latter condition by no means invalidating the mournful former.

To the novel’s credit, Darnielle never attempts to imbue his characters with facile pathology, instead letting actions and decisions impact the characters. One standout chapter focuses on Sean’s dis-invitation from his own grandmother’s funeral, and while his father’s decision to isolate him further is brutal and wrenching, his reasoning is amply founded, and the book permits sympathy for both father and child, for all sides of the heartbreaking equation. “The little silence that followed wasn’t my dad’s repetitive stutter. I could hear him entering a space he usually tried to avoid, finding himself on the other side of a door he wouldn’t normally open. I followed him in.”

The author leaves no room for false dichotomies. Darnielle makes his feelings clear without deigning to need to state them outright; when it comes to other people and other players, everyone is inhabiting some role, everyone is doing what they can to survive until their next turn. The structural shortcomings of this novel are easily forgiven, because as diagrammatic as the book can feel at times, Darnielle never denies any of his characters a depth of motivation, nor does he betray the reader’s urge to empathize with them. His prose is tender, restrained, fundamentally believable. Harsh though the book might be at times, it feels not unlike an especially artful YA novel, and even if the book ends up as a commercial failure — which is highly unlikely — high school curricula and summer reading lists will surely keep the book in steady circulation.

That Wolf in White Van ends up connecting together ouroboristically is, to me, an acute disappointment. The book’s cover depicts a labyrinth, but in this regard, the novel itself more closely resembles a closed circuit, if not a perfect circle. Slight and slim though it might be, Wolf in White Van was already shortlisted for the National Book Award, no small achievement for a first-time novelist. Darnielle wants “to build a bigger one” next time around, which should be tantalizing news for everyone. Indeed, it’s a credit to the embarrassment of riches that is John Darnielle that a book this vivid and affecting could be any kind of disappointment. Approaching a first novel with this level of expectation is unfair, sure, but in a very fundamental way, Wolf in White Van is a book about the fraught relationship between authors and audiences; how could I not?

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