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Wolf in White Van refers to the cryptic phrases supposedly revealed by listening to records backwards, which those of us old enough to get all the pop culture references in this book will recall was one of the big moral panics incited by Christian evangelicals back in the 80s. In one of many scenes described by the first-person narrator, Sean, in this non-linear novel, he actually calls one of those evangelical stations, as a child, during their "prayer hour," to ask about this phenomena.
Of course, the astute reader will also realize that it's a clever reference to the book itself, since it starts at the end and unravels back to the beginning of what eventually lead Sean to the trial with which the book begins.
Sean created a play-by-mail game called Trace Italian, in which the players journey across a post-apocalyptic America searching for a mysterious location called Trace Italian. They send in their moves, and Sean selects a few boilerplate paragraphs from his files, customizes them a bit, and sends them back. It might seem very strange if you never played one of these games. I did play a lot of PBM games back in the 80s and 90s. They were a lot of fun. The Internet mostly killed the industry, of course (the more savvy PBM companies moved to email and web-based gaming), but as Sean tells us, even though he expected the Internet to kill his game as well, he retains a loyal following even into the 21st century, still sending in moves by old-fashioned snail mail. This makes Trace Italian a sort of cult phenomenon, which fits with the events in the book, in which Sean, mostly confined to a secluded existence thanks to a horrible disfigurement, briefly touches the lives of his players and gets glimpses, and more often, speculations, about their diverse outside lives, through the handful of sentences they exchange every couple of weeks in the medium of the game. It gives the entire book the same mysterious, opaque feeling as the game described within the book, in which it's never quite known what is going on, but everyone is drawn in trying to put the pieces together.
In the beginning, we learn that two teenage players of Sean's game tried to play it in real life, apparently convinced that the game was giving them clues to things they could find in the real world. This ended in a sad and tragic fashion, and the parents of one of the teens blamed Sean and sued him.
From there, we go backwards. We know initially only that Sean is terribly disfigured - his voice is difficult to understand, his face makes people look away. Eventually we learn how he became disfigured, but the details, the hows and whys and circumstances, are parceled out bit by bit as Sean continues moving back and forth, from his present existence as the creator of a strange little postal game that gives him a meager supplement to his income, to the events that caused teenaged Sean to become a lonely, disabled monster, events which are echoed in the lawsuit back in his present.
This is an odd, interesting, and clever book, and I'd like to have liked it more. I got all the references - the Conan novels, the science fiction magazines, the PBM games, the Moral Majority and their hysteria about Satanic messages in rock music - and I do appreciate clever and different novels.
But I'm not that impressed by "ambiguous" novels. I don't need everything spelled out for me - I am okay with the author leaving some questions unanswered. But in the end, I still had no understanding of what troubled Sean, what caused him to do what he did, what he was besides an angsty kid with a difficult relationship with his parents. Maybe that is all the author intended me to understand, and he built this short novel about a troubled kid on layers of self-referential narrative devices and cultural easter eggs to be unearthed like the mysteries in Trace Italian. It was an ambitious effort that didn't quite land for me, so I can only give it 3.5 stars, which I will round up to 4 because I'd probably try reading something by John Darnielle again.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
Full disclosure; The Mountain Goats are my favorite band and I've been a fan of John Darnielle's lyrics since 2005.
I knew this book would be special. I didn't know if it would be good. Songwriters aren't always able to take that step from lyricist to novelist. I was totally prepared for this to be some quirky little vanity thing that John put out and would have found merit in it just because, but holy God. This book is a stunning character study in frailty, innocence, loss of innocence, the sacred, the profane, the imperfection of family and just life. Read the synopsis yourself if you want to know the plot.
If you ever lived under a roof where the people who made you created their own narrative to believe about you because they can't understand your music, your books or your games. This book is for you.
If the inside of your head and the fantastic world and role you created for yourself there has always been more home to you than home. This book is for you.
If you don't know why you've hurt the way you've hurt for years or why you just seem to makeit worse. This book is for you.
If you are looking for something that gives your answers or even clear cut questions, however, this book is NOT for you.
Whenever an author reads his or her own work, I'm always hesitant. Stephen King can spin a mean yarn, but hearing him read it aloud is like listening to a table saw read the bible. Neil Gaiman is a literary genius, but I literally want to put on PJs and drink warm milk when I hear him. John isn't like either. If you've ever seen The Mountain Goats in person, or heard John in interviews, you know he has a unique cadence and spins some words in odd directions pronunciation wise. Hearing him read this himself is comforting and unnerving at the same time. He knows just how this needs to hit you and hit you it does. I cannot recommend this haunting, beautiful thing enough. Get this. Now.
11 of 12 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
Yes, obviously context needed, but the I've contemplated buying a copy for my Aunt.
It isn't complex, it's scattered in the sense that the story is intentionally not told chronologically.
What other book might you compare Wolf in White Van to, and why?
John Darnielle has written a review of the Black Sabbath album "Masters of Reality" which is very similar in a sense.
Have you listened to any of John Darnielle’s other performances? How does this one compare?
I wish there was other recordings of books by John. John writes in the same kind of voice as he sings, as such any Mountain Goats fans should check this out.
If you didn't know John is the primary member of the band The Mountain Goats.
Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
I was really attached to this book, there was moments that effected me emotionally.
Any additional comments?
It's a lovely book, it's worth reading up on the furore over the Judas Priest court case and the Dungeons and Dragons hysteria.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
bit short and lacking substance I wouldnt waste my timeon it given a second chance
From the opening John Darnielle's voice is unexpectedly plain and yet authentic. Even as a fan of the Mountain Goats I had no idea what to expect. The story is thick with tangents and overflowing with similes, yet rich in the character of the narrator to such an extent that I was reminded of Holden Caulfield. The reverse unfolding of the story combined with the character of the prose makes one feel always at the edge of comprehension, like missing one word might render the story senseless. Yet it is this tension with comprehension and madness that gives the story so much of its allure. Darnielle treads this line so perfectly, never letting the story be fully in your grasp, but never frustrating you. He doles out the narrative in such rich yet measured form I couldn't stop listening.
Loved this book. a deep exploration of charafter told in a patchwork of memory, metaphor, pop culture and trauma. can't wait for John's next book!