John Darnielle is best known as the front man and songwriter of indie/folk band, The Mountain Goats. But his ability to write complex and intelligent prose is not just confined to writing music. He is also a columnist and has previously published a novella. Wolf In White Van is Darnielle’s debut novel and it has already been long-listed for a National Book Award in the U.S., but despite this accolade the results are somewhat disappointing.

Wolf In White Van (named after a satanic reference to song lyrics) sees a disaffected youth named Sean Phillips go through a series of transformations. These predominantly include becoming a disfigured recluse and an eventual “other world” master. The story is told in reverse order and in a non-linear way. This means that it is only in the book’s final pages that we learn of the events that caused Phillips to become permanently disabled and disfigured.

The other major plot in the story sees Phillips describing in long and often laborious detail how he created Trace Italian. This is a fantasy, role-play game involving strategy and survival that is set in post-apocalyptic America. Phillips devises the game whilst he is recovering in hospital from the traumatic incident. Trace Italian is advertised in magazines so that would-be players can write in in order to play the choose-your-own-adventure-style game. The aim is to negotiate through a labyrinth of moves and events in order to reach the safe house that is buried deep inside the maze.

It is through Trace Italian that the loner Phillips connects with the outside world. He becomes close to two enthusiastic players, but one day tragedy strikes after the pair take the game too seriously. This results in death and it lands Phillips with a lawsuit as the distressed families and friends want to ensure that the person responsible is held accountable.

Wolf In White Van is a mostly introspective tale that largely takes place inside Phillips’ head (the text contains very little dialogue and live scenes). This means there are often rather long and boring monologues about the confusing moves in the game and the different players. The story is also quite cold and distant and at times it feels like it contains too much navel-gazing. Another problem is that the book is supposed to be a suspense one, but when both tragic events are revealed they are anti-climactic and could use further explanation.

Darnielle has attempted to write a dark and haunting novel in the vein of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. But ultimately, this one just isn’t as good as the latter masterpiece. Wolf In White Van is an unsettling story but its methodical prose which coasts by neither forwards nor backwards (just somewhere in the middle) is too repetitive and elusive to really cut through. Darnielle’s work shows promise and the concept is interesting enough but the execution lets it down. Too much is lost in translation, making it impossible to truly grasp how this tragic, aloof and disaffected teen never really grew up.


Originally published on 2 December 2014 at the following website:

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