Trouble Finding the Edges
One should never be surprised, exactly, that a person showing talent in one field shows equal talent in another. Most creative people, after all, are individuals of restless imagination, and have no trouble imagining themselves as having the potential to create great works in music, cinema, visual art, or whatever other field to which they apply themselves. Still, it is relatively rare that an artist actually does achieve excellence in more than one form, which is why Wolf in White Van, the first novel by John Darnielle, is so astonishing. His legacy as the singer and songwriter of the Mountain Goats has already secured him a place in the artistic pantheon of the 21st century as a composer of stark, simple songs with deep, brilliant, and often disturbing lyrics; his gifts as a writer might have hinted that he was capable of writing passable fiction, but this, his debut novel, is far beyond mere competence, and is in fact one of the finest novels of the year.
At just over 200 pages, Wolf in White Van is not a long or difficult novel; its story is deceptively simple and straightforward, and it has only a few characters — only one of great consequence, in fact. Its plot is almost non-existent: Sean Phillips lives alone in a small apartment in southern California. His face is hideously deformed, the result of a traumatic incident in his teens that is kept from the reader at first. He supplements his meager income of disability payments and insurance checks by running a play-by-mail adventure game of his own invention called Trace Italian, in which players travel through a post-apocalyptic America. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that he has faced a certain amount of legal trouble because of the actions of a pair of midwestern kids who got far too involved in the game.
That’s about all there is to it for Wolf in White Van‘s plot. It is a book that contains two major spoilers, the nature of which should be respected to allow them their maximum emotional impact: the death of one of Trace Italian’s players, for which Sean is held responsible by her parents, and the event that led to the destruction of his face. But the two events are curiously low-impact in terms of the actual story; one is revealed relatively early in the book and bears little consequence in Sean’s life, and the other, while it is not fully fleshed out until the novel’s last line, has the inevitability of a fact we’ve known all along. What matters in the story is Sean’s own reactions to these things, how they change him or fail to change him, how he reacts or does not react to them, what meaning others try to ascribe to them whether or not any meaning is present.
It is this desperate search for meaning, for motivation, for original intent in the often-random tragedies of life that form one of Wolf in White Van‘s major themes, and gives it so much of its emotional impact. After Sean’s face is mutilated when he is 17, his father is determined to blame the incident on a suicide pact with the boy’s girlfriend Kimmy, despite the obvious fact that no such pact ever existed (“I began to sense the scale of it,” Sean recalls with terrifying clarity; “he’d told himself a story and shared it with Mom, who’d written her own version of the same story, and then they’d compared versions until they’d arrived at one they could both believe in”). the dead payer’s parents, too, had come to believe in Sean’s role as a murderous mastermind, a narrative that was pure fabrication but was the only way they could make sense of the senseless death of their child. Darnielle’s intent is not quite as pure and unvarnished as that of Gus Van Sant in Elephant, but the similarities are inescapable, and say much about how our natural tendency to see — or invent — patterns can both save us and destroy us.
Wolf in White Van is also a powerful work for those who seek to articulate the appeal of fringe culture — of role-playing games, pulp novels, cheap genre movies, heavy metal — especially for those who find it difficult to locate comfort elsewhere. Through his ability to create a word that makes sense to him, even if he doesn’t understand it, Sean is able to make profound emotional connections with those who share a stake in those worlds; whether or not he has met them is beside the point. But it is not just an elaborate defense of nerd culture; it is far too elegant and articulate and intense to be a mere exercise in the defense of nostalgia. It is, rather, a meditation on the power of art itself, both as a force for destruction and a tool for creating empathy. The Sean we see as a young man has not yet understood the salvation that can be found in creation; to him, it is something that generates only a reflection of his inner turmoil. But once he overcomes that — once he survives and transcends it — it is something that allows him to understand not only himself, but other people. It is a maturity not only of culture but of character that we see as Sean’s worlds transform from a vehicle through which he punishes the world for not understanding him into a means by which he forges connections to the world, even when he does not understand it.
By turns moving and sinister, plaintive and damning, beautiful and horrible, Wolf in White Van is able to take the elements of base culture and turn them into a reflection of our deepest pains and needs. It has been characterized as a novel of escape, and that’s not wrong, but its greatest strength is that it shows us why and how we can escape our deepest pains, but also that there are some things we can never escape — and shouldn’t try. The crux of the novel, and the meaning of life, lies in telling the difference.