A shotgun blast destroyed most of Sean Phillips’s face when he was seventeen. In one of my favorite scenes from John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van, a pair of metalhead teenagers drinking beers in a parking lot have asked to see his reconstructed visage up close. He informs the reader that no one ever asks if they can look; mostly they stare, disgusted, horrified. It doesn’t scare the teen outcasts; they’re fascinated by it, thrilled by the walking gore before them. They high-five him, blowing smoke away from him in deference. “I felt like the sun had just risen inside me.” He has been disfigured in what we come to find out was a botched suicide attempt.
John Darnielle’s debut is an absolute wonder, the best new novel I’ve read this year. Though he also wrote a slim novella for Continuum’s 33 ⅓ series, the author is most widely known for his band The Mountain Goats, with whom he’s released over a dozen albums. He commands a devout fan base, aided by his generous presence on social media outlets. The New Yorker called him “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” Qualifiers aside, that is a lot to live up to when you’re switching mediums. But through deft construction and well-earned empathy, Darnielle has crafted a memorable character who is guided through the darkest patches of his life by an inner intensity that burns like a magnesium flare.
Now thirty and basically a shut-in, Sean’s quiet life revolves around his game business. His biggest success is a play-by-mail post-apocalyptic role-playing game in which his customers walk through a scorched North America, dodging territory-hungry bandits and roving scavengers as they try to cross the plains en route to a star-shaped fortress built on the Kansas planes called the Trace Italian. As a business practice, most roads will eventually lead to the Trace, though not all players will stick with it long enough to know its sanctuary. If that reads like gobbledygook, think of it like a choose-your-own-adventure version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
As you progress the path becomes less clear: with every less clear point you know you’re going beyond the places where the others lost the trail. Stopping to rest, you see a spot where plants seem to grow higher. If they have followed your path faithfully, bounty hunters will be here within the hour. North lies Nebraska.
Choice is the resounding theme that binds the narrative and the game descriptions within the book. Sean constantly describes his own world in terms like these, detours and back roads that lead you to the safe place. It is what got him out of the hospital. He describes in searing detail the agony that passes the days. “Every thought or emotion I have is focused on the pounding pain in my face, which feels as big as the side of a barn. I hurt so much that I would trade anything for relief, do anything, hurt anyone.” While there, basically mute and immobile for weeks, creating and envisioning the future wasteland that becomes Trace Italian was his most important means of recuperation. As within the game itself, the Trace was created as a sanctuary. With it, he is able to abide the physical anguish that will be with him always as well as the constant gawking that would degrade a weaker spirit. He visualizes his pain and frustration in order to overcome it, or hide as it skulks by.
It is the author’s deliberate choice to leave fuzzy two of the most important plot points that drives the reader to dig deeper for clues. For one, Sean’s motives for attempting suicide are unclear. The flashback scenes with his parents show them as aloof but never abusive. He’s grown his hair long. He draws monsters, he listens to metal. They just don’t understand him. There are worse crimes. He is mostly petulant in their presence, brooding at their questions, but not violent or combative. He’s not a future school-shooter, a tricky discernment which would have been a misstep.
Though the character construction and fluid plotting is sophisticated, the language is suitably penetrable. Perhaps that is because Sean grew up on dimestore pulp fiction paperbacks; if as a teenager he’d devoured poetry or Russian literature, we might not be able to identify with him as well. The clearness of the prose makes this world immediately accessible to anyone who can make it past the back jacket description. The language is mostly PG-13; there are no adult moments (i.e., talk of sex, etc.). Even including the incident of self-harm that the book hinges on, it would not seem out of place if FSG had decided to package Wolf as a YA release.
In a way, our narrator is still the same emotional age he was when he tried to end his life. He’s distant with his caretaker, cold to his parents, though possibly out of necessity. He is as fascinated by himself as the dirt-stached heshers in the parking lot, never missing a chance to describe the grotesquerie people see. He remarks that it “has a fresh-scraped look to it at all times.” He describes his smile as “horrible.” When he eats, he “make[s] noises like an octopus feeding underwater.” He still has anger within, but he is smarter now than when he put the shotgun below his chin. He does not pity himself or his situation because he has something to offer fellow travelers.
The games that Sean creates are not only his life-consuming hobby, financial cushion, and rehabilitative companion, but they are also a means of escape for the players who send their SASE’s and monthly turns. We learn that Sean is on trial for the death of two of Trace Italian’s players, a young couple who he has never met but identifies with. Without his knowledge, though, they’ve fallen deep into the game, whether through mental imbalance or psychotropic substance, and send him letters describing missions they’re sending themselves on. In bits and pieces, we find out this couple started digging a hole overnight, but one caught hypothermia and died. That sounds silly as I type, but in the book it is handled with the utmost seriousness. Darnielle brings earnest gravity to all of Sean’s thoughts. It’s a tragedy he is needlessly blamed for by parents who don’t understand why their kids would do this. Nor does the reader, nor do they need to. We will have no easy answers; the Trace will not be breached. Our only hope is that Sean can move through this new adversity with the same profound resilience that girds his imagination.
Pub date: September 16, 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel