It’s frankly surprising that John Darnielle hasn’t written a novel before now.*
The driving force behind the Mountain Goats, Darnielle is regarded as a great storyteller. He populates his songwriting with stories of tragedy and empowerment, painful open wounds and monsters, both human and other. It can be raw and personal (“The Sunset Tree”) or metaphysical (“All Eternals Deck”) … or both at once.
His debut novel, Wolf in White Van, falls into this last category. Protagonist Sean Phillips, disfigured at age 17, lives as a recluse. Sean’s human contact comes in the form of a nurse, Vicky, and the sidelong and quickly averted eyes of strangers. He makes trips to the park or liquor store. Sean also runs a play-by-mail role-playing game, the kind once advertised in the back of Dragon magazine. The reading and answering of the game players’ moves form the backbone of his life. As the novel opens, Sean’s game has leaked into the real world, with tragic consequences for two young players.
Sean’s fantasy game, a post-apocalyptic survival epic called Trace Italian, takes its name from a (historic) star-shaped fortress whose outer fortifications contain even further fortifications inside, a layered maze for attackers to work through. The novel, spiraling out from one pivotal moment in Sean’s youth and then protecting that secret until the very end, follows the game’s structure in a convoluted manner.
Such convolution can hardly be considered a new conceit in literature, but Darnielle does it well here. As Sean remembers the course of events that led to his injuries, and as he creates the game and then as the tragic events unfold for two players in the fields of Kansas, the reader gets no easy-to-follow time scale but a general sense of working backward. An attempt to hold Sean responsible for the Kansas events fails, but even as we witness the pain in the courtroom, Sean whisks us away to his youth, to Krull, to heavy metal and his early writing for Trace Italian. A reader can’t let the mind rest for any length of time … or settle on any mundanity.
Don’t expect fantasy. Wolf grounds itself in reality from the opening page. But because of the circumstances of Sean’s life, his disfiguremen, and his propensity to point inward, even simple day-to-day chores become tinted with the extraordinary. A trip to the liquor store to buy candy turns into catharsis; Sean’s chat with two teenagers in a parking lot offers more healing more than any of his therapists or medications. The act of staying up late as a child to watch Christian television provides the title of the book and gives young Sean an early, powerful insight into himself. A painting in his parents’ house bookends the novel … and perhaps even plays a role in his injuries.
The book holds a lot to unpack. Sean’s life of minutiae, from simple charcoal drawings hung on the wall to terrible, Conan-inspired cassette tapes, makes his character come to animated, imperfectly perfect life. This attention to detail, this humanity, makes the book a joy. Already nominated for the National Book Award, it deserves attention. Take time to unravel the heart of the Trace Italian and find what Darnielle has hidden there.
*Darnielle’s addition to the 33 1/3 series, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, is considered a novella.
Lincoln Eddy is a writer based in Chicago.