LitStack Recs: A Time of Gifts & Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

When I found out about halfway through Wolf in White Van that the author was a musician (John Darnielle is the lyricist, composer, guitarist, pianist and vocalist – and sometimes sole member of – indie folk band  the Mountain Goats), I wasn’t surprised at all.  The narrative is lyrical, yet practical; the story unfolds slowly yet so easily.  There is little subterfuge and no sense of orneriness – it’s very earnest and honest in a slightly bizarre way.  Kinda like an indie folk song.

The story is narrated by Sean Phillips (in homage, perhaps, to another indie folk rock icon?) who lives a modest life in Southern California.  He’s come a long way since a horrific incident left him disfigured at the age of 17. Since he can’t really hold a typical job, he maintains his modest lifestyle by running an adventure game – a subscription game that Sean has been building bit by bit from his linear and branching imagination since before the accident, back when he was a bit of lonely kid scribbling and doodling in a notebook.  While in the hospital and during years of recuperation and therapy, the land that he created (dystopian, near future America) and the dangers that inhabit it (rugged landscape, sparse resources, outlaws, feral creatures both human and nonhuman) become an orderly obsession, a way for a bedbound and misshapen child to relate, to grow, to explore. The notebooks grow with a precision and attention to detail that allow him intricate control.

He calls the game Trace Italian, and it morphs from an internal diversion to a text based, role-playing game of strategy and survival.  Sean mails each player a stark yet beautifully realized scenario and set of possible actions based on their prior movements and decisions.   Then the player responds with their decision (enhancing their experience, if they wish, by their own written role play within the boundaries of the given scenario), which then would prompts the next set of variables to be considered and acted upon…

Okay, I could go on and on about the game, because I love gaming and this idea intrigued me.  But Wolf in White Van isn’t about the game – it’s about human interaction, even when there are separations existing between people – how stilted, how distant, and yet at times how lovely those interactions can be.  Sean’s reactions to the responses his disfigurement elicit is, at times, heartbreaking, but at other times – many other times – are intriguing and even uplifting.  As the story regresses (it’s told in reverse order), it unfolds in a way that makes the ending even more…

Well, read it for yourself.  This is a slim, fast reading book where not much happens and yet worlds open.  Lyrical yet sparse, simple yet deep, developing slowly yet tantalizingly, it may not the book that hits you the hardest this year, but it will resonate for a very long time.

—Sharon Browning

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