Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, book review: Puzzles of an isolated imagination


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The Independent Culture

John Darnielle is an acclaimed lyricist and musician, appearing alone or with others as The Mountain Goats, and his debut novel has been picked as one of the 10 longlisted for the National Book Award. The story is dark and troubling, a feature, perhaps, of Darnielle's abuse as a child at the hands of his stepfather, explored in one of his albums, The Sunset Tree, which he acknowledges is autobiographical.

Sean is a young man who has suffered terrible facial disfigurement as a result of a gunshot wound. The reader soon finds out whether the injury was accidental or not. The story zips between different time frames, from Sean's childhood, where his solo games involved playing a bloodthirsty ruler wreaking brutal revenge on his subjects, to the time spent recuperating in hospital after his injury and the years beyond.

While confined to his hospital room, Sean conjures up an adventure game that can be played via the post – this is the pre-internet era. This game is Sean's escape from the horrors of painful procedures and his reliance on others for basic care. But once he is out of hospital and has paying customers engaging in his game, he realises that for some players, the adventure is not confined to the imagination.

Darnielle's prose is strikingly good; it is not only lucid but startlingly effective at evoking the thoughts and emotions of his protagonist. He shows how Sean is no longer the boy he was when he suffered his injury: "The memory crested, peeking out from behind a sort of interior immovable monument in my skull where all the old things lie." Darnielle draws parallels between the game and Sean's life, especially his ordeal in hospital: "I won't get up. I have seen the interior once. I'm not going back."

He is also excellent on Sean's grieving parents' desperate need to find a rational explanation for what happened; one that is palatable for them to digest, and on Sean's inner numbness after the trauma. The author's observations on the attitudes of others to the disfigured are apposite; the way direct questions and eye contact are easier to handle than furtive glances and whispers. Small insights stud the pages: here is Sean on the truism that a creator's first work is often their most raw: "There is something fierce and starved about first ideas."

Minor criticisms would include too much time spent in the paths of the game rather than in Sean's real life, which is far more absorbing, and the dissipation of tension too early by revealing the outcome of a legal case. But this is definitely a highly gifted writer; one to watch.