12. Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

2 Feb

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

A successful pop musician writing a good novel as John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has done, is such a rarity I can’t think of another example. Wolf in White Van is more than a curiosity of interest to Mountain Goats fans, it’s a stand-alone wonderful book, a maze of slippery, non-chronological text about a solitary mail-order fantasy-game designer who suffered a disfiguring accident in late adolescence, and his ability—or not—to move past it.

The game, Trace Italian, is like a dark choose-your-own-adventure, whose movements and players make up a part of the narrator’s story. From its opening moves, excerpted at length, it becomes clear that Darnielle is creating something unique, weaving together gamespace with adolescent urges of loneliness, violence and longing, and where we will end up, we do not know.

For the third time since sunrise you see men in gas masks sweeping the highway. It’s dusk. They are approaching the overpass where you hide in the weeds. You can only guess, but guesses are better than nothing: you calculate your chances of escaping unnoticed at 15 percent. When the nearest of them is close enough for you to hear the sound of the gravel underneath his yellow rubber boots, you know that the time has come for you to act.
Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.

Some people, as I’ve seen from reviews, feel that this is a book whose plot points are subject to spoilers, and that the ending is a surprise. I thought that what type of accident narrator Sean suffered and how/why it happened was pretty obvious from the opening pages, so I’m going to discuss it—exit now if you want the unadulterated experience.

So (assuming people afraid of spoilers have now all left the premises….) this is a lone-shooter book, about a kid with angry, aimless urges and access to a firearm. Here he is discussing his early Conan the Barbarian fantasies:

I took control of the place, of the scene: I made it mine. Groans echoed in the cave. Brittle bones broke beneath the knees of my crawling subjects. We had moved from San Jose to Montclair a few months back; it had ruined something for me, I was having a hard time making new friends. I had grown receptive to dark dreams…. Backyard Conan, thrown together from half-understood comic books only, took several liberties with the particulars. The Conan that the world knew didn’t drink blood, wasn’t ruthless and cold…. When I became Conan things were different; his new birth had left scars. I ruled a smoking, wrecked kingdom with a hard and deadly hand. It was dark and gory. No one liked living there, least of all its king.”

I have always been interested in this topic, I suppose I remember enough of angry adolescence that the atrocities that occur have never seemed so improbable.

The real reveal is in the relationship between the older and wiser present-day narrator and the teenager, and what the Trace Italian—a stand-in for the narrator’s unchecked imagination—ends up meaning. That part, I will not spoil, though I wish I could, because I found it breathtaking and very sad.

The other pleasure of this book, is that Darnielle’s prose is wonderful in the same way his Mountain Goats lyrics are wonderful. A video game named Xevious is “very relaxing” and playing it is “like watching flowers bloom. Weird metal airplanes flew over the green and gray background dropping bombs on everything, explosions splashing like soft cymbals…”.  Getting medication in the middle of the night is “too sad and horrible to be worth it.” A gloriously atmospheric passage in gamespace  reads “pass through crystal gate/ cut central cables/ food, water, gauze/ sewn patches for light uniform.”

I wonder if Darnielle will write other books.

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