I have to preface this review by saying that I’m a big fan of The Mountain Goats and John Darnielle’s lyrics in particular. A few years ago, I got a hold of a copy of All Hail West Texas after one of my guitar teachers at Old Town School used “The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” for a twin spin (a sheet of paper with a song on each side). The CD was on heavy rotation in my car for months—I sang along, tried to figure out strum patterns, and marveled at the way Darnielle created little mini-novels in each brief song—songs about misunderstood teens, fighting couples, and the marvels of a newborn’s gaze. Many albums later (I had some catching up to do), I’m still a fan.
So, I was intrigued but not surprised by the fact that Darnielle wrote a novel. Much like music of The Mountain Goats, this novel might not appeal to everyone. It’s dense and complicated and dark. It took a couple of chapters for me to get a feel for Darnielle’s rhythms but soon after I was hooked.
This is the story of Sean Philips, who was horribly disfigured by an accident as a teen. As Sean lies recovering in the hospital, he develops a complex role-playing game that is played fully by mail. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic future and the players are looking for a safe haven called Trace Italian. Players write to Sean with their next move (and a small fee) and then Sean sends back information about the results of this move. Even after the Internet hits, this old fashioned game is still played by enough people to help Sean pay his bills.
This novel starts in the present, as Sean is dealing with the aftermath of two of his players taking the game a bit too seriously. Lance and Carrie, two high school students, wander off into the wilderness to “find” the next move and there are disastrous results. Sean is taken to court by one of the teen’s parents but even though the case is thrown out, the tragedy has a ripple effect—making Sean think back to his own teen years. However, this makes the novel seem more straightforward than it is. The narrative moves back and forth in time and we are totally mired in Sean’s psyche. We see his teenage and adult obsessions, we see how his life is now, and we nervously notice that one plotline from the past seems to be leading up to the moment of Sean’s “accident.”
I’m not a big fan of re-reading books unless a lot of time has passed but when I finished this, I wanted to go back and start again. I feel like there was so much I missed—maybe because I’m not a gamer or knowledgeable about Conan the Barbarian (though I did see the movie about Robert E. Howard with Vincent D’nofrio and Renee Zellweger). That didn’t keep me from fully engaging in this book but it made me wonder about the layers I didn’t see. Again, I think this book won’t work for everyone. Like Darnielle’s voice, sometimes the writing style distracts from itself, but I couldn’t put this down.