When I read fiction –well that’s mostly what I do read- I tend to vacillate between pop fiction and what may be called (arrogantly maybe) literary fiction. Part of the reason is that I want to appear smart. Having only spent two years at a community college, and hating it as much as I hated high school, I’ve tried to make up for it by appearing smart, even though I usually fail at this when conversations deviate into territory I don’t know. Then I become quiet. And then I grow bored when I can no longer supply any more information on a subject.
Anyways, with Wolf in White Van, a novel by John Darnielle, the composer and vocalist for the indie band the Mountain Goats, I felt a bit dumb. Not that I did not understand the plot, but that I could not, for whatever reason, identify with the main character of Sean Phillips. He’s too much of a cipher, too lost in his own pain and suffering. And while the character does not come off as an angry teen, he is clearly more damaged than his physical appearance would lead you to believe.
“Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in Southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian - a text-based, role playing game played through the mail - Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.”
The books conceit is that it's told in reverse, which does take a bit of getting used to. But through the roughly 210 pages of this short novel, Darnielle reveals Sean’s sins. But by the time I got to the end, and thus the beginning, I was frustrated and felt disappointed that I could not feel anything for Sean. I actually felt sorry for his parents.
I am curious why Darnielle did not just set his tale in the 1980s when there were stories of kids whom took their Dungeons and Dragons fantasy from the room to the real world. This role playing game through the mail in time of the internet seems far-fetched (though we are never given an exact time period this story takes place over). Also, while born in Indiana, he grew up in Southern California, close to where I live today. I liked that part of the book, as I recognized aspects of Pomona, Claremont, and Montclair throughout the book.
In the end, I felt I was not smart enough to understand what the themes of the book where, mostly because I have never experienced any of them -even as a person who lives somewhat of a hermit these days. Then again, I don’t experience a lot of things the characters go through in most of the novels I read (with the exception of Stephen King, maybe).
Finally, this book was originally released in September of 2014. I found out about it in December of that year and put the book on hold via the Los Angeles County Library to be picked up at my local library here in La Verne. It took until two-weeks ago for it finally come to me, as the queue for the waiting period was well over 120. I'm assuming the most readers who put on hold at the library where fans of the Mountain Goats (family and friends?) or who knew Darnielle for his years of living here and graduating from Claremont High School. Plus, obviously, the county only ordered one book. Was it worth the wait? Yes, of course, I love fiction and I love smart writers. Perhaps I'm so used to way books are constructed in popular fiction, when something like Wolf in White Van comes along and throws that expectation for a loop, I get defensive (the same way I got with City On Fire as well).