Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.28.2016
Book from: Personal collection

John Darnielle is the Mountain Goats, one of my very most favorite bands, a band-of-my-heart. Wolf in White Van was his first full-length novel, and was nominated for the National Book Award when it came out. (And, great recent news: his next novel is slated for release early next year.)

John Darnielle - Wolf in White Van

This is tragic and beautiful, a dreamy tissue of all of the themes that constitute a sort of home base for Darnielle’s work, the source from which he is always elaborating: family dysfunction in Southern California; teenage alienation, intense to the point of being inarticulable; and its expression in the potent, feral paraphernalia of 70’s-80’s Goth/metal/fantasy – skull emblems, Conan the Barbarian, late-night television programs on Satanic backmasking, bags full of cassette tapes, arcades, dreams of bone thrones and infinite wasteland.

Darnielle’s protagonist begins in a sort of mild rubble. Following a terrible incident as a teenager, he became a shut-in; he now makes his living by running a play-by-mail apocalyptic RPG. He’s just exited the legal trial that investigated his potential culpability for a tragic choice made by two of the players of his game – two of his favorite players. From here, he moves backward and inward to the scene of his own teenage trauma. He paces through a flowing series of vignettes: chance encounters with strangers who break his present-day solitude, almost imperceptibly cruel past conversations with his parents, childhood imaginings, all exuding talismanic significance.

These express simultaneously a piercing sense of humanity, and an inviolable disconnection. He is happy today, in his own way (I’m always drawn to characters who are self-made, faintly holy hermits), but still we step back and back to the black, black place of his trauma. Life is soft and sweet and bitter, and there’s a black vein running through it all.

7 thoughts on “Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E”

  1. There was this kid who lived up the street. We were all kids but his MS made him almost adult like.. Adding to this he called his parents by their first name which struck me as odd but we’d only catch glimpses of them before we got to playing red box dungeons and dragons. He was my very first DM.

  2. Now having read this book I remember the last day I was at their door. His parents kept guard, said his illness had advanced, and they were moving to spend the last months together. So yeah wow, this story is about waiting… He waits for his players to take their turn, his parents trapped in an almost office relationship with him.

  3. Waiting a lifetime of not knowing, just the results of things. The reader waiting for sense to come, but where there seemed a module of adventure you learn its all labryinthed, real life and lettered, and the most ironic thing is… He says no-one can die from wrong decisions.

  4. Those decisions will only delay… But he honors in conan ritual when a player decides for themselves it is over… The wait is over… He is attendant to their funeral, and something has crossed between… An understanding, ultimatums are only made by the individual.

  5. And now I miss all my gaming friends… Drove 14 hours to garycon, a memorial gaming convention with them in my thoughts.. I didn’t know I was leaving ’til I threw my laundry basket full with the last load and gaming books on top, into the car.. I passed so many windmills.

  6. Quixotic I’ve always been the old man… And when I returned I brought back a dice for each friend. A bag of goodbyes… And now I look for a new game that might fulfill but nothing ever sticks. I want life to blur enough so i don’t see the turns.

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