I had a hard time getting into this book – it was a combination of the beginning being slow, because the world in this novel is so specific and frankly a bit difficult to get into, and also there was the matter of a book hangover after reading Notes on an Execution. I tried to read a charming fantasy novel (Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield) and stopped when I only read about 20 pages in a week, which is a good indication that I’m just not that into a book. By contrast, when I picked up Wolf in White Van, despite its slower start, I was mesmerized and couldn’t put it down. Once I got past the opening and started to get a firmer grasp on what was happening in the novel, I found that I was quite into it.
I suppose I’m on my way to being a John Darnielle completest – both of his earlier novels were available as I wait for Devil House. After the first 50 pages of Wolf in White Van, I was convinced that I preferred Universal Harvester – but soon I realized that this book was equally as intriguing, if not more so. A specific scene, in which the narrator interacts with two teenagers in a liquor store parking lot made me sit up and pay more attention to the novel. Soon thereafter, I was hooked.
The narrator of this novel, Sean Phillips, is disfigured from a tragedy (which you will come to understand with increasing layers of depth as the book progresses). The novel doesn’t so much skip through time as skid and loop back on itself, each choice Sean makes is an echo of some earlier decision. Sean is deeply invested in a game he created while healing from his injuries in the hospital – Trace Italian. This game was created in a time just before the internet, when the mechanism for playing a game would be to subscribe to a mailing list. To take a turn, you read the packet that Sean sends, then respond with a choice (ie, camp overnight, attack the marauders, etc). Sean receives that choice, then sends a prepared response describing what happens next. Despite the play being much slower, it made me think about the role player games I’ve been enjoying so much lately – deep understanding of the world is rewarded. Each choice you make – which quests to pursue, which side quests are worthy of your attention – will branch off into a series of new choices. It’s both more intimate and more remote for the players and the creator. This suits Sean quite well, since his appearance is startling for everyone. Occasionally, Sean’s relationship to the people who subscribe to his game becomes more complicated – other people are also invested in his world, and that can have consequences. A central element of the book revolves around two teenagers who become overly invested in this game, resulting in a tragedy (one for which there is an open question about Sean’s culpability).
Over time, you come to understand more about who Sean is as a person, what he has experienced in the past, and how that has impacted him in the present. It sounds vague and trite in a way, but it’s difficult to write much about this book without giving a lot away. It’s the sort of book where there is a payoff in the final moments based on earlier musings about a closed door. It’s about nothing and everything all at once. It’s deeply character driven (very little in the way of plot occurs), and interested in the most basic elements of what it means to be a human. It’s a novel that changes – it’s not quite what you think it will be about.
Be warned that there is considerable suffering in this book – the narrator expresses his joy and gratitude often, but there are plenty of allusions to suffering and tragedy, including suicide, death of a child, and multiple references to violence – just in case that’s really not your thing or something you want to avoid right now. If you’re up for it, it’s a quick read that will sit with you for quite some time.