This is a book I read a few months ago and have been thinking about off and on ever since, which is certainly not a bad thing. I waited eagerly for its release, because it’s the first full-length novel by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who I think is possibly the best lyricist in the world of music today. I was intrigued to see what someone who can sketch an entire story in a three-minute song could do with a whole novel, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I read Wolf in White Van very quickly when it came out in September — overnight, really — and then gave it to my son, who is a huge fan of Darnielle’s music. I fully intended to re-read the book soon, because it left me with more questions than answers. But Chris (who did like the book as well) took far longer than I did to read it, and by the time I got it back I was on to other books, so I haven’t yet reread it (though I probably will). I think it’s a book that grew more meaningful to me after thinking it over for awhile, and will probably offer even more on a second reading.
Wolf in White Van tells the story of Sean, a youngish man whose face is hideously disfigured due to an act of horrific violence when he was seventeen. In his isolated life as a near-recluse, Sean has constructed a fantasy world: a text-based role-playing game called Trace Italian, in which players move through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, writing letters through the mail to Sean in which they choose their next moves. Based on their choices, Sean mails them the next scenario. The scenes of the game were all mapped out in his head during his long and painful recovery years ago and now stored on paper to be shared with the handful of people still fascinated by a text-based game played through the mail.
The novel unfolds in Sean’s lonely present-day but also travels back through his past to the fateful day when his world changed forever. The truly chilling thing about that day and that event, when we finally get back to it at the end of the novel, is that there’s no reason, no explanation, no cause, for what Sean did. Reading this book as the parent of two teenagers I found this terrifying: every parent’s worst fear is that their child will be either the victim or the perpetrator of a horrific act — or, as in the case of suicide, both. When such a thing happens, people latch on to reasons — abuse, severe mental illness, trauma — to explain why it happened. But “why” — a question Sean is asked by a child in a park at the novel’s opening — is not a question to which this novel offers an answer.
Teenaged Sean is lonely, isolated, and doesn’t always get along with his parents — but none of those things is more true for him than it is for most other teenagers most of the time. On the day of the tragedy, nothing goes especially wrong — in fact, some things go quite right. And yet it happens anyway. The book suggests that life is like a role-playing game. Every day we face turning points, and we don’t always recognize their significance. The urge to self-destruction arrives and the impulsive young person acts on it, or lets it pass. And life continues unchanged, or ends — or is transformed into something unrecognizable.
Present-day Sean will always live with the consequences of teenaged Sean’s action. Reflecting on the book afterwards, I found that prospect less bleak than it did while I was reading it. From his isolated apartment, Sean does interact with others — primarily with the people who play his game and the caregivers who come to his home to help him, but also with the child in the park, some teenagers in a parking lot, and a couple of old friends from high-school days with whom he has brief encounters. Some of these interactions are definitely negative: a phone call from his parents relating news of a death in the family is devastating; a pair of young gamers become so immersed in Sean’s Trace Italian world that they attempt to act out the game and die in the attempt, as a result of which Sean faces a legal battle.
But other interactions are positive and hopeful — people show Sean small and unexpected kindness, and in turn he reveals his own kindness, his fragile ability to hope and trust. Ultimately, I came away feeling that the message of this short, compelling, beautifully-crafted book is both terrifying and inspiring: we shape the game by the choices we make.