Published Sep 19, 2014In song, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle has proven himself a masterful storyteller, so it's hardly surprising that he can transfer those skills out of music and into prose fiction with seeming ease and apparent grace. In Darnielle's first try at fiction, a 33 1/3 entry on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, he entered the mind of a 16-year-old who relays his experience in a mental health care centre through diary entries, exploring the importance of art as a means of understanding one's place in the world. In Wolf in White Van, Darnielle switches focus from art to the importance of narrative: What are the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive?
Darnielle's protagonist is Sean Phillips, a Southern Californian whose life path was shifted irrevocably when he was disfigured at 17. With all but his arms and mind immobile following the incident, Sean escaped into fantastical imagined worlds that he later turned into a play-by-mail role-playing game called Trace Italian. When two Florida high-schoolers bring their game play into the real world and disaster ensues, Sean is forced to consider his own life — the loves, obsessions, people and stories that have led him to the present moment.
As such, Wolf in White Van is less plot-driven than it is a character study; Sean's life is a lens through which Darnielle asks big questions about what can and can't be said or thought, and whether it's fate or our own decisions that define who we become. Throughout, the novel jumps forward and backward through time to tell Sean's story, suggesting the simultaneousness of all of his life's events and thus, the possibility that they were all leading inexorably to his disfigurement, to Trace Italian and to the incident that has caused him to confront it all again.
Trace itself is a mirror for Sean's fatalism, a game in which players have the illusion of free will despite being subject not only to the rules of the game but to its creator's ability to change or bend those rules at his discretion. As in life itself, players must "move forward or die" (Sean's words) but there are some in-game moves, such as "Rest and Restore," that he claims "[draw] out your time and [impart] a sense of depth without moving your play ahead too fast."
Life, like Trace, has infinite possibilities, but similarly, those possibilities dwindle the further in one gets. In the novel's climactic scene, in which Sean is "locked into a sequence" that leads to his injury, he refers to the life possibilities that his injury later precludes as "lost in the play."
Rather than dictate an answer to the philosophical fate vs. free will question posed by Sean's actions, Darnielle leaves the reader to ponder the answer. He gives no clear answer, either, for whether Trace Italian is to blame for the disaster that befalls the Florida students. Can something about which the kids cared so much ultimately be harmful?
While it's questions like these that linger long after the novel is finished, it's Darnielle's easy prose and deep character portrayals that draw the reader in, especially that of Sean, who defies easy understanding. At turns brash and thoughtful, selfish and sweet, the book's main character is intriguing and complex without invoking sentiment or romanticism, a feat that speaks to Darnielle's talents as a storyteller.
Wolf in White Van picks up where Master of Reality left off, but takes the questions he raises into murkier and more deeply engaging territory that yields no easy answers. (Harper Collins)