Darnielle’s debut paints troubling landscape
AS the singer-songwriter behind indie-rock outfit the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has always traded in making difficult art. His songs are not for everyone: though beautifully expressed, they often document dark and viscerally painful events, and Darnielle’s voice, a reedy, nasal instrument, is not to everyone’s taste. The same might be said for Darnielle’s ddebut novel. The slim volume, which was recently longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award, is a strange, troubling book. It’s not easy to read on several fronts: it jumps around chronologically; it’s deliberately opaque in places; and it deals with uncomfortable subject matter. And Darnielle’s narrative voice is not what one might expect from his songs, which are like miniature stories. Here, sentences spiral and curl in on themselves, dense enough to require reading over twice. Sean Phillips is recovering from an accident — unspecified at first, but clearly horrific — that has left his face a grotesque, scarred mask, “like bent wheel spokes pressed into taffy.” While recuperating, he comes up with an elaborate role-playing game he calls Trace Italian. He throws himself into making the game a reality, a task that sustains him, both psychologically and financially, once it catches on with a group of like-minded RPG fans. Players must navigate through a post-apocalyptic America, searching for refuge at the Trace Italian, a starshaped silo fortress that offers protection from marauding mutants. The game is played via mail, with competitors sending in their moves by letter with an enclosed SASE; Sean then sends back a somewhat luridly written scenario (he is obsessed with Conan the Barbarian books) and more options from which the players can select their next course of action. It’s a vast, branching network of choices, all contained within a meticulously imagined kingdom. The world of Trace Italian is real to Sean; unfortunately, some dedicated players feel the same way. He is held responsible by the parents of a young couple who have thrown themselves too zealously into the game. The court case is a bit of a red herring, however. Darnielle is not interested in resolving an external conflict. He’s content to settle the reader solidly into Sean’s head, sending us gradually back to his days as a withdrawn teen, the kind of kid who escapes into Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal. Though we’re privy to all of Sean’s thoughts, his actions are still almost incomprehensible, which is, on one level, unsatisfying and on another, probably the point. He is a fractured soul; the way his mind works is tortured. But he has moments of wit and clarity, as in an exchange he has with his mother after his accident:
“‘I worry that you’ll be lonely,’ she said; she was crying. “‘I was going to be lonely anyway,’ I said, which I didn’t mean to come out in the way it did, but it did, and besides, it was true.” Wolf in White Van is quietly devastating in a way that’s tough to shake; if you re-read it, you’ll also discover how carefully it’s constructed, how many windows Darnielle has provided into Sean’s mind, though many are clouded over or partially boarded up. The boy who was overwhelmed by life’s choices now holds dominion over a world where all the choices lead to known ends he has devised himself: “There are only two stories: either you go forward or you die,” he says.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.
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