Memories shape so much of our present reality. We rely on them to control our progression into the future. We see images, both fondly and horrifically, and we hear voices, which occasionally navigate our consciousness. When memories begin spinning, they create a meta-reality—one in which we partially exist. This realm of haziness is where John Darnielle’s complex and often dazzling debut Wolf in White Van finds itself.
Darnielle presents Wolf in White Van through the eyes of Sean Phillips. Sean is a young man who lives in two worlds—one that contains the hard memories of his past and another that mostly exists in the fantasy-filled present. Sean never lets us too deep into his past. We know that he has an extensive facial disfigurement, but he withholds the cause for most of the narrative. He, like the story, is full of surprises and mystery.
Sean’s world of fantasy is the one in which he spends most of his time. Because of his physical otherness, he does not participate in the social world. He feels that he cannot. To make money and to connect, Sean creates an intricate, through-the-mail game called Trace Italian. The game relies on multifarious possibilities for player exploration. Sean must know projected paths before players request them. After participants write in with their desired move, Sean mails them back the results. Play carries on back-and-forth until interest in the fantastical succumbs to reality.
Sean tells us, himself, that knowing which world is real is a challenge. He says, “Sometimes I have trouble finding the edges.” He’s not the only character who struggles with understanding reality. Lance and Carrie are two frequent players of Sean’s Trace Italian. They become so invested in the fantasy of the game that they take their play into the real world. As the two characters discover, fantasy, sadly, doesn’t stand a chance in such a cruel, dangerous world. The unpleasant reality barges into Sean’s world, too, and the collision of reality and fantasy creates a surreal literary experience.
Darnielle seems interested in examining the role physicality plays in society, and the conclusion is that appearance dictates too much. Sean lives behind a curtain because he has to. He retreats into his game because he has no other choice. He hides in a small apartment by himself. His family fears Sean’s appearance as much as any stranger on the street might. The entire treatment of Sean—by others and even by himself—is terribly sad and concerning. Yet, it seems true when considering the society we live in today.
Wolf in White Van also shows an interest in religion, another part of our world that exists beyond the collective us. Sean dabbles with thoughts, but he never really embraces or ignores the possibilities surrounding him. Simple awareness permeates much of Sean’s life.
Although Wolf in White Van is Darnielle’s debut novel, the writing shows masterful precision. The sentences come across as lyrical, shifting slowing and maintaining a consistent voice. The novel is tough, but it’s handled so well that you appreciate the structure rather than grow anxious by trying to understand every word of it.
John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van is a coming-to-deal triumph for the melancholy. Read it; decode it; live it. Do whatever you want, but you wont be able to forget it.