Sweet Grief

Wolf in White Van: A Novel BY John Darnielle. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 224 pages. $24.

The cover of Wolf in White Van: A Novel

From an early age, Sean Phillips, the narrator of John Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van, has counted himself among a particular sect of “young men who need to escape.” Alone in his backyard in Southern California in the early ’80s, he pretended he was Conan the Barbarian; when he got a little older, he replied to small-print ads in the backs of magazines that said things like “Catalog of Rare and Unknown Swords from Around the World, Send Three Dollars and Two International Reply Coupons.” He spent countless hours—days, maybe weeks—scouring the sci-fi and fantasy sections of bookstores, seeking out the pulpiest, most garish covers. When he was a teenager, he collected a stack of D-list horror VHS tapes with names like Gor and Krull, and he listened to abrasive music at volumes loud enough to drown out the squawk of uncomprehending adults. At his most self-aware, he saw his life governed by a sad paradox: The fact that he knew he was a recognizable type did not make him feel any less alone.

As the founding member of the prolific, fiercely beloved band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle is something of an expert regarding the plight of outcasts. His songs employ the narrative strategies of short stories—one album, 2002’s Tallahassee, was composed of songs describing an alcoholic couple who moved to the titular city in an attempt to quit drinking—and many of his protagonists are star-crossed kids: A teenage death-metal duo break up when one member is sent to boarding school; an injured high-school football star does federal time after selling acid to an undercover cop; a boy is so transported by drinking scotch with his girlfriend and playing video games that he momentarily forgets about his abusive stepfather. Full of rich details, Darnielle’s lyrics display a palpable love of language, and his early records suggested that it would be only a matter of time before he tried his hand at fiction. In 2008, he made a modest go of it with Master of Reality, his entry into Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on classic albums. Darnielle’s take was perhaps the series’s most formally inventive: a brief epistolary novel narrated by a teenager in a psychiatric facility, who makes an impassioned and convincing case to the hospital staff as to why they should give him back his confiscated Black Sabbath tapes. Short but searing, Master of Reality was a testament to how teenage trauma can reverberate across an entire life, as well as to the profound, even sacred effect that supposedly “low” art can have on a beaten-down imagination.

Wolf in White Van takes both of these sentiments a step further. Sean is no longer a teenager in the novel’s present tense, but in a certain way his life is forever frozen at seventeen—that’s the age when, in an accident whose details remain a mystery for much of the novel, he was shot in the face and severely disfigured. “Words like pretty and ugly exist in a different vocabulary from the one you might invent to describe a face that had to be put back together by a team of surgeons,” he explains. “My face is strange and terrible. It merits a little staring.” Most of those aforementioned “young men who need to escape” eventually grow out of their misfit status, or at least find like-minded fellow travelers, but Sean’s disfigurement makes permanent the alienation he felt as a teenager. Decades later, his only meaningful relationship is with the home nurse who comes to periodically clean his grafted skin; he does his food shopping early in the morning to avoid stares. His life has become a version of those cheap horror movies he’s always loved, only its monster is tragically human.

Wolf in White Van offers up something more complex than just doom and gloom, though. As Sean was slowly recovering his eyesight in the hospital, we learn, he passed the time by devising and inhabiting an alternate reality in his head—a dystopian vision of earth scorched by a collapsed nuclear reactor. When he’s discharged, he indulges his inner pulp-fiction author and transforms his vision into an elaborate play-by-mail game called Trace Italian (named for the player’s ultimate destination, a radiation-free shelter hidden “in the new deserts of Kansas”). The game finds a modest cult following, and in subsequent years, maintaining the subscriptions of the players (some of whom have been playing for decades) becomes his life’s work. The Trace is a role-playing game that describes to players post-
apocalyptic scenarios (“You see the horde of misshapen half-human creatures on bony horses”) and presents a finite number of options (Attack? Retreat? Or tend to your wound from the previous turn?). Some players answer with terse notes; others write such voicey and voluminous explanations of their actions that their turns have the intimacy of letters from old friends. The game becomes Sean’s oblique connection to the world he’s estranged from. One teenage boy even takes to signing his missives “Love, Lance.”

Darnielle is a more powerful writer in shorter forms; his best songs teem with a brutal but cathartic urgency, and Sean’s voice is relatively placid by comparison. Perhaps this is why, although we get to read some of the Trace turns, the world of the game never quite comes to life. Much more vivid, though, are the seemingly mundane details of Sean’s daily life, as well as the synergistic relationship between “life” and “the game.” We eventually learn that those pulpy sci-fi paperbacks actually saved Sean’s life; they enabled him to envision his recovery as a kind of adventure, motivating him to endure the Sisyphean task of living through another day. “Pushing myself against the wall-rail down the hall to the shower room,” he recalls of his long hospital stay, “I would picture myself scurrying shirtless through the few gutted buildings that remained in the slumping cities . . . served lunch, I would imagine that I was foraging for uncontaminated canned foods.” 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 is the pop critic at New York magazine.