When I picked up Wolf in White Van at the library, I didn’t even read what it was about. I judged it by its title…and the title scared me a little. It was ominous, it was predatory and I? I was curious. I honestly don’t know how to write this review and I don’t know how or who I’d recommend this book to because I flew through the book, I had certain expectations that were met but at the same time, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never did and therefore it was a better, more subtle book than I was expecting. At the same time, it’s one of those books that what’s not being said is just as important as what is. I waited a few days after finishing it to decide what I wanted to write about and so here I am…not sure what I want to write about.
Wolf in White Van is not told linearly. We are told early on that in the past Sean Phillips was horribly disfigured in an accident at the age of 17. We then float back and forth between right before the incident, present day legal issues, snippets from high school and the drudgery of every day of his present day life. While in the hospital on the verge of either death or recovery, Sean invents a game that he calls Trace Italian (taken from Trace Italienne which is a term for a star shaped fort. Go ahead, check them out on Google Images-I’ll wait, they’re fascinating). The game is like one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books and Dungeons and Dragons mashed together in the sense that Phillips is basically the dungeon master of his particular game. The scenario is that a nuclear reactor melts down and creates a world of risk, choice and possible death around every corner and the goal is to make it to Kansas to the Trace Italian and survive. Ultimately, it becomes a mail-order game where players send in their choices and what they “see” and “do” and Sean evaluates these choices and sends their next move and the next series of choices. Sean expected that when the Internet rolled in that Trace Italian might’ve fallen completely by the wayside but there are a hundred or so people who diligently mail Sean with pages of details of what they see/do/hope and want. He reads this and responds with pre-written scenarios based on their choices and little handwritten notes.
Concurrently, Sean is being sued by a family because a couple of kids took Trace Italian literally and went to Kansas completely unprepared for the weather and the environment and began acting out their moves in real life with some disastrous results. Tie that in with flashbacks of Sean’s teenage obsessions juxtaposed with snippets from an evangelical tv program that was analyzing lyrics when records are played backwards (which is where the title comes from) and Sean’s current routine/life years after the accident and we get a story of choices and consequences…ultimately, it’s a story about life. Sean’s game is a microcosm of what we do on a daily basis–make choices and end up changed by those choices no matter how big or inconsequential they seem. There is also that randomness-those times we do things and we aren’t quite sure why we did them particular in the teenage years. I know that I never came close to “touching the void” when I was that age but I also know that some of my actions would be absolutely inexplicable to me today and most likely, equally mystifying if I had taken the time to analyze them then. This book sticks with me, it’s subtle–there’s not a lot going on, but there’s a lot going on and I think it’s one of those books that I’m going to think about in odd moments and perhaps understand a little more or perhaps not.