Darnielle’s de­but paints trou­bling land­scape

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jill Wilson

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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