Review: Wolf in White Van


wolf in white van

In the early 1990s, John Darnielle set “some of his poetry to music, using a guitar he’d gotten for a few bucks at a nearby strip mall music store. His idea at the time was that eventually his day job would be ‘poet.’ …Young men have all kinds of crazy ideas about what they’re going to end up doing for a living,” says his website bio. He went on to found the popular folk-rock band, The Mountain Goats. Its fans are drawn to Darnielle’s simple instrumentals and powerful lyrics.His song “You Were Cool” sums up his approach and the band’s appeal: “This is a song with the same four chords / I use most of the time / when I’ve got something on my mind / And I don’t want to squander the moment / Trying to come up with a better way / To say what I want to say.”

Now, Darnielle has fulfilled his day-job fantasy in another way—he has written a National Book Award-nominated debut novel, Wolf in White Van. Fans of Darnielle’s music will not be disappointed. Darnielle writes in the poetic, playful tangents characteristic of his lyrics, often grasping at a passing image or emotion and describing it from every angle before rejoining the unfolding story.

Another similarity is less to songwriting than to rock lore. The book unfolds in a zig-zagging and suspenseful chronological reverse, inspired by the urban legend that certain rock songs played backwards reveal coded messages. (Perhaps most famously, the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” was supposed to say “Paul is dead, Paul is dead.”)

Our narrator is Sean, a middle-aged man disfigured by a self-inflicted rifle blast at age 17, who lives in near isolation in Southern California. Wolf in White Van takes its title from a late-night Christian television show Sean watches before his injury, in which a televangelist decries the devil’s subliminal presence in pop music and tells viewers they can find proof of this by playing songs in reverse. Many characters in Wolf in White Van evince a similar hope: that by looking at life backwards, they’ll learn why things have turned out the way they have—identify some point of no return, the karmic or causal explanation for their troubles.

When the televangelist plays a record backwards, Satan’s supposed message sounds like “wolf in white van.” The television presenter can’t exactly say why this is satanic or what the devil has in mind. Sean doesn’t buy into the hidden message, but he latches on to the image and riffs on it obsessively:

And I thought, maybe he’s real, this wolf, and he’s really out there in a white van somewhere, riding around. Maybe he’s in the far back, pacing back and forth, circling, the pads of his huge paws raw and cracking, his thick, sharp claws dully clicking against the raised rusty steel track ridges on the floor. Maybe he’s sound asleep, or maybe he’s just pretending. And then the van stops somewhere, maybe, and somebody gets out and walks around the side to the back and grabs hold of the handle and flings the doors open wide. Maybe whoever’s kept him wears a mechanic’s jumpsuit and some sunglasses, and he hasn’t fed the great wolf for weeks, cruising the streets of the city at night, and the wolf’s crazy with hunger now; he can’t even think. Maybe he’s not locked up in the back at all: he could be riding in the passenger seat, like a dog, just sitting and staring out the open window, looking around, checking everybody out. Maybe he’s over in the other seat behind the steering wheel. Maybe he’sdriving.

Young Sean develops a fevered, adolescent kinship with this imagined wolf and its sheer number of possible, sometimes contradictory scenarios. Sean’s conclusion is the opposite of the televangelist’s: that there is no meaning to be uncovered, good or evil. He conceives of life as a series of “meaningless afternoons that [end] somewhere big and terrible.” One night, he feels the pressure of the future as a sudden “rising squall beyond the door” and attempts suicide with his father’s rifle.

When we meet Sean in the present, he has spent his adulthood alone, isolated by his horrifically disfigured face. In keeping with the backwards structure of the book, Darnielle veils the details of Sean’s injury, albeit thinly, for much of the book, but we understand that from the time of his excruciating recovery he has supported himself—financially and psychologically—by meticulously creating and running a play-by-mail fantasy game that allows him to work without leaving his apartment. The game—Trace Italian, named for the trace italienne or starfort that is the players’ goal—is a sort of isolationist cousin of Dungeons and Dragons: a few hundred neo-Luddite role-players pay Sean a monthly subscription and send in each move by mail, along with a SASE that Sean returns with a Xeroxed description of the next step in the adventure.

Trace Italian asks players to travel through the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the former Kansas in search of the fort. The Trace is a place of shelter and healing, and reaching it is the game’s functionally unattainable objective. Sean developed the idea for the game while rehabbing in the hospital:

Pushing myself against the wall-rail down the hall to the shower room, I would picture myself scurrying shirtless through the few gutted buildings that remained in the slumping cities, whistling signals to the others who crawled across the crossbeams; served lunch, I would imagine that I was foraging for untainted canned foods, coughing through dust that rose from the shelves of a grocery store on an empty block in a long depopulated city. Lying in my bed, I would think: I have been wounded en route to the Trace Italian. I am going to have to heal myself, or limp to safety. Get up. Get up. Get up.”

Sean retreats into the world of the Trace in moments of great stress or trauma, and it literally numbs his pain. But even more than a haven, Sean desires—and the game provides—a direction, or the myth of one. He speaks reverently of the faceless every-player in the game’s first turn, setting out across an irradiated wasteland, who “has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he’s headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain.” There’s courage in Sean’s fantasy world-building.

Wolf in White Van begins at a second point of rupture in his life. Two of his most dedicated Trace Italian players, a teenaged couple, have taken the search for the Trace Italian into the real world. They act out their next turn—“START DIGGING”—in an attempt to find a hidden path to the fort. Their adventure ends disastrously as the girl perishes of exposure in a shallow hole in rural Kansas. The girl’s parents file a lawsuit against Sean on grounds of tacitly encouraging their daughter’s self-destruction through his game. The pre-trial conference to determine whether the suit has merit forces Sean to see that the fictional world he built to cope with his own post-traumatic stress has contributed to the trauma and death of others. Wolf in White Van is among other things a trauma narrative. The player’s death partially destroys the fantasy of the fort as haven. Sean re-evaluates his own reality and his past. He reconnects with his high-school girlfriend, the last person to see him before his suicide attempt—and the person his parents blamed for the event, more through desperation to find a cause than concrete suspicion. He considers another set of attempted reconstructive surgeries.

Legally, Sean is never in tremendous danger. It quickly becomes clear to both judge and attorneys that the deadly choice was the teens’ alone. Darnielle’s real objective in this twist of the plot is unpacking Sean’s mind. Sean is kind and sympathetic despite his violent past. Even in the moment of his legal absolution, he voices concern for his accusers: “There was silence for a minute, and then the judge, a little crudely I thought, nodded toward Dave and Anna, saying, ‘Well, this makes your case a lot harder to make, I think.’” Sean feels the dissonant tugs of pride in his invention, grief at the player’s death, anger at the teenagers’ self-destructive foolishness, and empathy for their mindset.

“There are only two stories,” Sean says near the end of the book, remembering the early days of his rehab. “Either you go forward or you die.” At first, this seems to contradict the backwards structure of Darnielle’s book. But Wolf in White Van is about finding meaning in the past that makes the future possible. It is the story of a life-sustaining haunting, of ghosts with substance that Sean has come to rely on. “There are so many different kinds of ghosts,” he says. Sean is haunted by his younger self, pre-injury, a man who no longer functionally exists despite Sean’s physical survival. “The Sean who built the Trace is as distant from me now as the Sean who blew his face off is from both of us,” he says. “All three live in me, I guess, but those two, and God knows how many others, are like fading scents. I know they’re still there. I could find them if I needed them. But I don’t need them, and one of them survives only in bits and pieces. They certainly don’t need me. They are complete just as they are.” This is the muted redemption Sean finds by looking backwards; grief and appreciation for his former selves.

This theme of losing and retaining past selves and of making a whole of fragments speaks even to those who haven’t suffered catastrophic injury. Amidst the lyrically unfurling passages, Darnielle nestles poignantly simple insights about life post-trauma, about the outsider’s desire to connect. Speaking of the impossibility of his passing through a supermarket unnoticed and accepted as an ordinary person, Sean says, “I can’t miss shopping like you’d miss things you once had. I miss it in a different way. I miss it like you would miss a train.” The highlight of the novel for Sean and for the reader is a chance encounter with two teenagers drinking outside a liquor store during the day. The young men are brave and honest in their fascination with Sean’s injuries. “Dude, your face,” they begin the encounter—and Sean feels truly comfortable, “as if I was among members of my tribe,” for the first time since we’ve met him. “In a different world,” he says, “I might have looked like Kevin and Steve instead of like myself.” A blissful contentment comes over him: “Whatever it was—past or present, or unknown future—it seemed to rise from the asphalt like an invisible cyclone, swirling up around me in my mind.” As is the case for many trauma survivors, Sean’s forced quests into the past for answers are never as rewarding as the rare days when he finds peace in the present moment.

At the Manhattan launch event for Wolf in White Van, Darnielle mentioned that he chose Kansas as the location for Sean’s fantasy haven of the Trace Italian because ofThe Wizard of Oz, saying that he has long been haunted by the power of Dorothy’s longing to return to Kansas. Wolf in White Van is certainly a labyrinthine and circuitous book, and some readers may be reluctant to follow Sean on his reverse-quest for meaning—especially as it attempts to make a case against causality, a detective story without a solution. Darnielle may seem to turn against his own explanatory lyric, squandering the reader’s sympathy for his protagonist to “come up with a better way to say what he wants to say”—choosing style over substance, in other words. But, for all its complexity, Wolf in White Van has a simple mantra, a blueprint for all survival after trauma: “Once you’ve looked at a deadly thing and seen it disappear, what more is there to do? Walk on through the empty jungle toward the city past the clearing.” Darnielle’s novel has to look back in order to propel itself forward. It maps one man’s inward journey through fear and pain toward an unreachable refuge and his brave decision to turn back to the light. Wolf in White Vanis haunting in the way of the best, most useful ghost stories.


Olivia Wolfgang-Smith’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Cobalt Review,CutBank, Fourth Genre, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.

Review: Wolf in White Van

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