Monday, December 8, 2014

WOLF IN WHITE VAN :: John Darnielle

I finished Wolf In White Van several weeks ago, and although I've been ruminating on it since, I'm still not certain I can adequately review it. Which, in this instance, is a testament to the unique and compelling nature of the work, one of my favorites of the year. Written by musician John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats (whose music I have never heard but will now seek out), the book certainly has a lyrical quality and, like a song, the meaning to be mined from it is to some extent left to the reader.

At the outset, we know protagonist Sean Phillips experienced a traumatic and disfiguring incident as a young man. The opening lines give some of this away:

My father used to carry me down the hall to my room after I came home from the hospital. By then I could walk if I had to, but the risk of falling down was too great, so he carried me like a child. 

What we don't know, and what slowly unravel through the course of the story, are the what and the why. And while the incident is at the core of both who Sean is and what the book is about, there are no neat answers. In this way, the book felt profoundly in tune with real life and the psychology of human behavior.

While lying in the hospital and through his long recuperation, Sean keeps his mind busy inventing a post-apocalyptic role-playing game called Trace Italian. Once able, he turns his idea into a reality, starting a small business running the game through the mail. For a fee, subscribers receive information regarding their next available moves in response to their letters to Sean revealing what they did with his last set of clues. Through this ongoing correspondence, Sean is connected to the players, even if remotely and based on made-up roles.

Trace Italian is a fantasy game, but two participants have taken the game "live," to disastrous ends. At the start of Wolf, Sean is facing an inquest over his potential responsibility for the acts taken by the two young players. The story weaves deftly between the past and present, doling out its own set of clues to the reader as to how Sean has come to sit where he's sitting, literally and metaphorically.

Told in reverse-chronology stream-of-consciousness style as Sean's past is weaved into his present, Wolf is challenging, gripping, and often raw, as Sean has been living a fairly solitary and often surreal existence since he was disfigured more than twenty years prior. But I also found it full of grace, as Sean has transformed and crafted a life in his solitude, one that is perhaps defined by more ties and meaning than it was pre-incident, even though shot-through with guilt and isolation:

I always wonder if people are afraid of me because they think I'll do something: press my face up against them or start making funny noises. I am always a little tempted to satisfy their fears. But I never do it; it would feel wrong; it would be wrong. I don't need to make myself feel better by frightening people or making them squirm. When I was a child, I dreamed of powers like these, but I no longer have those dreams. I am free. 

I think this book will have many different meanings and messages to different people. I could talk about and explore it ad nauseam, but I hesitate to delve too deeply and risk giving too much away. The joy is truly in the journey. One of the wonderful characteristics of Darnielle's story-telling is how he holds the mysteries and slowly lets them trickle forth. The incident hovers over every passage and I suffered the tension of wanting to know, wanting the answers. Darnielle's prose, past and present, masterfully holds that tension, circling around the incident like water to a drain, slowly drawing the reader closer to the defining moment that may, ultimately, be undefinable.

STREET SENSE: I can't do justice to Darnielle's masterful and unique writing, it has to be experienced.  I can't recommend Wolf enough if you enjoy lyrical writing that pushes the boundaries, forces you to think and reflect, and may raise as many or more questions than it ultimately answers.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I closed my eyes and I concentrated. Dad was getting ready to tell me about the funeral plans, I knew. I could make it easier for him if I tried hard enough. It isn't really much of a mystery, this occasional need I have to comfort my father. I did something terrible to his son once.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover intrigued me more than anything. It reminded me of the mazes I used to do in Highlights magazine as a kid. I was also attracted by the color, which was anything but dark. I can't really tell you why, I just knew I had to try the maze, I wanted to know what that weird title meant. And the maze was so good I'm still mentally wandering around in it.


Rhonda Hicks said...

Well, I had another book you recommended that I was going to read next. I think I may go with this one though. Sounds great, even though it's pretty short. Did you know that the author reads the audiobook?

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I did not know that. Based on his main vocation as a musician/singer, I'm guessing it's going to be great. Makes me want to listen!

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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