Category Archives: Fiction

Wolf In White Van

Wolf In White Van by John DarnielleReview: Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014)

John Darnielle is, according to the blurb accompanying Wolf In White Van, a member of some musical combo called The Mountain Goats and one of the most accomplished lyricists of his generation. News to me. I get the impression that his band are probably the kind of group whose entire fanbase knew them before they were famous, if you get my drift. ┬áRandom hipster-sniping aside, Mr Darnielle has been awarded the honour of joining the unexpectedly sizable ranks of musicians-cum-authors lurking at the top of my reading list. Bad Wisdom by Bill Drummond (KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp) has long been my favourite novel/travelogue of all time and it has always had Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel sniffing at its heels. Add to that list Drummond’s solo works plus the likes of Woody Guthrie and Henry Rollins – music and literature can make a pretty good team. Unlike the others mentioned I was totally unaware of John Darnielle’s musical musings prior to reading Wolf In White Van so my opinion couldn’t be tainted by prior fanboy droolings. So, what does he bring to the table with his debut novel?

The action is told from the standpoint of the protagonist Sean. Horribly disfigured by an initially undisclosed accident, Sean’s life is one of isolation both self-inflicted and enforced by the disgusted reactions of those around him. While recovering in the hospital from the incident which left him barely alive, Sean crafts the idea for Trace Italian, an old-school play-by-mail adventure game in which players find themselves stranded in a post-apocalyptic America. Their only hope is to make their way towards the Trace Italian, a quasi-mythical fortress of safety in whose arms they will be protected from the marauding gangs of mutants and roving clouds of poison gas. A far cry from modern video gaming, the action is intensely personal and happens at a glacial pace, one handwritten letter at a time between Sean and those who found his advert lurking in the back of a dusty old comic.

As Sean’s tragic story unfolds in a series of fits and starts through flashbacks to his hospital days we become aware of a further tragedy in his universe, this time one emerging from Trace Italian itself. It’s long been a clarion call of the concern-troll arbiters of the PC brigade that video games are bad for you, turning innocent children into soulless killing machines. We’re a far cry from that but Darnielle plays out a case of taking a game too seriously, even when played at a rate of a move per week. The more details we glean about the exact nature of the event, the more we appreciate the parallels between it and Sean’s own life, both paths converging in the game he goes on to create.

Wolf In White Van is a book all about choices, about freedom. Why did Sean choose the option which led to his disfigurement and isolation? What led the participants in Trace Italian to their eventual predicament? To ask those questions is to miss the point. There were choices. They were free. They chose. In the game itself, lavishly described scenarios are boiled down to a shortlist of simple options: Go North. Examine weeds. Hide in dumpster. Yet however constraining these choices may seem they are all open and Sean takes great pains not to influence his anonymous participants, no matter how much he may come to like them. He’s a Sartre-esque dungeon master, dispassionately observing the players writing their own destinies.

But what really holds the entire book together is Darnielle’s almost uncanny grasp of language. While I’ve never heard any of his musical works I’m already inclined to believe that his reputation as a master lyricist is well deserved. Each paragraph is loaded down with incredibly rich imagery and a truly wonderful knack for creative metaphor. What marks him aside from many similar novelists is the way he doesn’t lean on this to carry his work. It remains at the same time unmissable and subtle, slipped in effortlessly, almost like an afterthought. Writing in this manner all too often comes off as pretentious or egotistical whereas Darnielle manages to make it seem almost as if he’s lurking in the background, barely wiling to commit his words to paper let alone bask in the praise of others.

And what on earth does Wolf In White Van mean as a phrase? Well that’s for you to find out. When the reveal comes it’s almost incidental but nonetheless haunting, a motif you’ll carry with you for the rest of the book and beyond.

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The Death Of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

The Death Of Bunny Munro by Nick CaveReview: The Death Of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave (Faber & Faber, 2010)

Okay, for the next couple of posts we’ll be veering away from my usual sci-fi/fantasy/science selections and trying something a little different. This first book is, to put it mildly, disturbing. Nick Cave’s debut novel And The Ass Saw The Angel has been a firm favourite of mine since the first of the many times I read it. Something about the setting, the characters and the way he twists and contorts language left you feeling dirty after reading it, stained of soul and troubled of mind. Nonetheless there’s something completely mesmerising about it which keeps you returning. The Death Of Bunny Munro doesn’t quite hit the same cerebral spot but it does confirm that Mr Cave is a wonderfully sick man. Without further ado, and to borrow a line from one of his songs “It’s into the shame and it’s into the guilt and it’s into the fucking fray…”

Bunny Munro is a sorry excuse for a human being. Pathetic in fact. In his mind he is the be-all, end-all. The pinnacle of the alpha male ideal. Women want him, men want to be him. In reality he is a travelling salesman, hawking beauty products to lonely housewives in the south of England. Every client is a potential sexual conquest and he casually fucks his way through a slew of divorcees, recluses and B&B staff while his wife and son, Bunny Jr., await his return. Unfortunately for Bunny, it appears that the majority of his fornicatory successes take pace only in the foul cesspit of his primeval mind. In fact the only things remarkable about him are his sickly fascination with Kylie Minogue’s ass and the terrifying frequency with which the word ‘vagina’ crosses his mind.

Soon Bunny’s philandering catches up with him and he returns home to find his son alone and his wife hanging in their bedroom, finally having given up any hope for her former lover. Following confrontations with her understandably hate-filled family, he takes Junior under his wing and resolves to show his the way of the salesman. The plan is to impart all of his worldly wisdom and transform the innocent child into a replica of himself. From here, everything starts to fall apart. Bunny’s sanity begins to creak at the strain of supporting the embellished reality which he has created for himself, the constant visitations by the mournful spirit of his departed wife and the difficulty of having to deal with raising a child for the first time. It’s only a matter of time before something snaps.

The Death Of Bunny Munro is car-crash entertainment in it’s highest form. You know fine well that you shouldn’t be enjoying this book. Everything about it sings to the lowest, basest parts of our nature. Bunny is such a vile creation that his odour lingers on every page and you need to keep tissues on hand to wipe your fingers after every page turn. But you can’t stop turning them, you’re transfixed by the grotesque scenes unfolding before you. Being a veteran of hardcore horror movies and the most twisted bizarro fiction lends you a certain immunity to the depredations of most author’s minds but it’s the banal reality of Cave’s novel which lends it such power. Bunny Monro is more haunting than any closet monster, demon or alien because he could be that person sitting opposite you in the train carriage.

The Death Of Bunny Munro never quite attains the literary heights of And The Ass Saw The Angel, that’s for sure. From a linguistic point of view it’s far simpler, less dense, less intricate. The language, as befitting a man of Bunny’s diminutive mental stature, is basic and to the point. But this has the effect of making it that much easier for it to infect your consciousness. You’ll breeze through it without having to pause for breathe, only noticing afterwards the festering brood of eggs it’s laid in your skull. In fact just writing about it makes me want to reach for the wire brush and Dettol. Nick Cave, I salute you.

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