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. Random 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.