Wolf in White Van
John Darnielle is the lead singer of the indie-folk band The Mountain Goats. He’s a much- admired songwriter, having amassed the sort of crazy-devoted fans who hang off his every tweet and who once petitioned that he be named poet laureate of the United States.
The narrator of Darnielle’s debut novel is a brutally disfigured young man named Sean (how he came to be that way is a mystery until the very end). Now in his 30s he can live almost independently, and makes a modest living from a role-playing-by-mail game he has invented. But a short synopsis can’t do proper credit to the masterful plot Darnielle has crafted: a complex labyrinth that interweaves real and imagined worlds and is narrated by a thoughtfully intelligent voice (with echoes of the confused teenage Holden Caulfield and the wry, self-accepting Humbert Humbert).
The title references the belief that certain songs spread the message of Satan: wolf in white van are the words Sean is told he’s supposed to hear when a particular song is played backwards. It’s a nod to the way the narrative unfolds – backwards – a suspenseful device that pushes us thrillingly forward page after page.
Darnielle has worked as a psychiatric nurse, and he knows how to describe illness so that we can feel it, too: the headaches, the constant ringing in the ears, the heat of the bath on raw, reconstructed skin. He also has a talent for creating strikingly lucid scenes. In one excruciating moment in a car park, Sean meets a couple of curious teenagers who are fascinated by his deformed face and beckon him over. One of them offers him a beer: “I told him I couldn’t without a straw, and the quiet that fell onto the conversation for the next few seconds was like a great canyon in a desert landscape.”
The writing is great but at times, perhaps in a strained effort to create profundity, Darnielle plunges so deeply he brings back muddy sentences that momentarily bog us down without saying much. We are also fed regular excerpts from the game, which can be frustrating – it’s Sean’s real life we’re most interested in.
In the end, though, our keenness to inhabit the mind of this damaged young man points us in the direction of some dark and pained fortress inside ourselves. It’s an oddly revelatory path to venture down, one that can’t be forgotten quickly. BB
Scribe, 224pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 25, 2014 as "John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van". Subscribe here.