Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

I’m not a good reader. I’m simultaneously too slow and too fast, taking forever to miss important details. I’m not attentive and I don’t get “lost” in books; I’m constantly being taken out of them. I’ve all but stopped reading fiction because I finally had to admit I wasn’t any good at it.

I knew I had to read Wolf in White Van, though, because I very much enjoy the songs of author John Darnielle’s band, The Mountain Goats. Darnielle writes hauntingly incomplete portraits of people in crisis. I call them “pre-apocalyptic” because while things may not be great now, something horrible is looming on the horizon. But they’re not “wacky” dark or melodramatic, and that catastrophic moment never comes, and perhaps may never come, or perhaps has been coming very slowly for some time now. The people who populate his songs are human: they make poor decisions and live with the consequences, they are angry and sad and confused and sometimes taking what slivers of joy they can or figuring out how to keep going.

Wolf in White Van extends one of these characters. Sean is a loner, a survivor of an even that disfigured and changed him forever. He is outside of society and spends much of his time finding a comfortable niche to inhabit. In return, Sean has created a game, a sort of “choose your own adventure” game played by mail. People send in their moves and he mails them back the results an their next options.

Sean’s game world is post-apocalyptic. The players are survivors seeking a safe haven called the Trace Italian, but Sean knows what few of them do; that though the Trace Italian exists, they will never make it there. And then something happens in the game that ensures that even Sean’s fantasy world can be of no lasting comfort for him.

Much of this is established at the beginning of the novel because the various threads are told backwards. All these roads are leading towards the same crisis point, a big bang that spawns the resultant events. The moment, when it finally comes, retains its shock value because, even though the point is inevitable and the reader’s been bracing for it the whole time, it still somehow surprises.

Darnielle’s writing is crisp and tight and did, in fact, pull me in. And he has a knack for going along with some perfectly fine sentences and then suddenly dropping a bomb into it that reveals a new angle on Sean and his situation.

Darnielle is a nerd and in many respects this is a nerd book. Not like one of those nostalgia or reference parties, but because he speaks from and to a world of isolated weirdos. It is easy to start wondering where Sean would have ended up if not for his “accident” but Darnielle shows you plenty of possible examples and none of them are super promising. The critical moment in Sean’s life radiates in both directions, and it’s questionable just how much it changed his life in actuality.

If you’re a normal person, Wolf in White Van should be a quick read, but really dig into it. It deserves to be read well.

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