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Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

February 11, 2018

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John Darnielle is also a singer-songwriter who goes by The Mountain Goats. This, his debut novel, caught my attention when it came out in 2014 because I’m a fan of his music. But the reviews were great as well (as is the name, as is the cover). With all this, I finally got around to listening to the audiobook, read by Darnielle. It doesn’t disappoint, and I ended up finishing the full audiobook in two days.

Through chronological jumps, Darnielle reveals the story of Sean Perkins, inventor of Trace Italian, a role-playing game based on a post-apocalyptic world imagined by Perkins. Players correspond with him through the mail, playing god to his world as the players send their moves and he responds with the consequences of those moves. In addition to their correspondence about the game, players often disclose personal details about their lives. Sean detects in them kindred spirits, nerds and outcasts looking for escape and adventure. But as they play, the escape offered by the game becomes too real for some. One player, frightened by his obsession with the game, uses his move to commit suicide with his character. And two other players begin acting out their player’s move in real life.

We also learn that Sean has been terribly disfigured in a shooting, though Darnielle unveils the exact circumstances of the shooting slowly throughout the story. Sean’s recovery, his interactions with his caretakers and the reactions of people he encounters create a major thread of the narrative.

Wolf in White Van explores some of the same themes of Darnielle’s music—teenage loneliness, nerdy pursuits of 1980s and pre-internet 1990s, obscure pop culture references. Like millions of teenagers, Sean is socially awkward and emotionally distant from his parents. With Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has created a world that is familiar but wildly inventive, dark with dreamlike imagery but sensitive and poignant. I was expecting the book to be pretty good, but was blown away.

Anyone who loved Ernest Kline’s 2011 Ready Player One will likely appreciate Wolf in White Van. And I enjoyed hearing Darnielle’s reading of it. He has a dry, Demitri Martin-esque delivery that complements the story well.

Bonus: The Mountain Goats, “Love, Love, Love”

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