Human Interaction Is Nailed Down in 'Wolf In White Van'

by Scott Elingburg

18 November 2014

John Darnielle's debut novel is an exploration of self-reliance, pain, and acceptance. Isn't that enough?
 
cover art

Wolf In White Van

John Darnielle

(Farrar Straus and Giroux)
US: Sep 2014

The Mountain Goats, the band that John Darnielle fronts as a vessel for his songwriting, inspires a sort of rabidity in fans that is usually reserved for icons like Bob Dylan. I’ve seen Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes perform exactly once, as The Mountain Goats. It was a superb experience for me, but as I looked around at the roughly 200 other people in attendance, nearly all of them had a pained expression on their faces; expressions fraught with anticipation and greed, and also nervousness.

It wasn’t until later, when I glanced over at a young woman updating her Facebook status, expressing disappointment in the show, that that “Oh, now I get it” moment hit me: everyone was waiting for Darnielle to play their favorite song.

Darnielle is the type of songwriter who holds a key, and you are the door. When he sings on record, he invites you in to become part of his world, to see yourself in his blood-stained mirror. The feeling that an artist not only “gets” you, but articulates your inner doubt so eloquently, is frightening. And exhilarating. Darnielle will never let you down (unless he doesn’t play your favorite song at a concert, it seems); never abandon you on the side of a road in mid-fight; never ridicule any fleeting emotional experience you may encounter. And this type of identification—both inward and outward—is rare for pop musicians.

Further, Darnielle tosses songs out into the air with a frequency that’s terrifying and awesome. His output is near-monumental; his well of song does not run dry. If there’s any musician I feel is adequately able to write a novel, it’s Darnielle.

And that brings us to his debut novel, Wolf In White Van, a novel that has already made considerable waves in the literary world. It’s anticipation was palpable before it was released, and the groundswell of good press grows daily. (He was recently nominated for the 2014 National Book Award, an honor that, judging by his Facebook post, surprised even him.)

This type of anticipation and admiration is both a blessing and curse for readers. Expectations are high. So high, in fact, that even before receiving a copy of Wolf In White Van, I felt like I was already going to love it. Objectivity be damned; this was Darnielle’s moment to shine on, his chance for a new widespread appeal.

Well, dear readers, I’ve read Wolf In White Van. Twice now. And I come not to praise or to bury Darnielle or his book. Rather, I come to linger and ask a few questions. Because the truth is, I’m still struggling with the book’s ramifications. Struggling to reconcile expectations with the final product; struggling to disassociate myself from his protagonist’s aching familiarity; struggling to write something about Wolf In White Van that won’t seem hackneyed or submissive.

But I believe I’ve already gotten ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Wolf In White Van is a simple story. It’s a story about a man—a disfigured man, but a man nonetheless. Sean Phillips is our protagonist, our guide through the realm of the real and the unreal. He is the creator of the Trace Italian, a text-based role playing game where players make moves across a barren world created by him via mail. Sean guides them through a post-apocalyptic world that emotionally resembles his own and, by proxy, the world of Wolf In White Van and, by extension, our own.

Sean encounters trouble when two players go too far and take their moves into the known world; the world of flesh and blood and very real death. There’s no ultimate resolution, per se. No neatly wrapped ending for Sean or his players. Only confusion, misunderstanding, and the messy interactions of human beings, those that we can know and those that we can’t.

Sean spends his days in reclusion, mostly due to his disfiguration and the pain it has caused. His interactions, as well as his perspective, are shot through with awkwardness and pain—“Different type of pain for different types of people,” Sean tells us from the outset. His story progresses not necessarily backwards, but in recall, as piece by shattered piece the tale unfolds from beginning to end.

His days are filled with small interactions; interactions with his nurse, his players, and his family. The scenes that Darnielle displays where Sean interacts with individuals out in the world are heavy with real humanity. Darnielle has an ability to nail down human interaction in his songs, and Wolf In White Van give him a chance to expand beyond the strictures of the three-minute pop song.

It’s a slippery slope when songwriters are given too much freedom; the tendency to overexploit their characters’ emotions and actions is a thin line to tread once given all that blank real estate. Yet, Darnielle keeps his chapters and his observations on the trimmed side, despite a few areas of rambling observations and emotional output early in the book.

What’s most striking about Wolf In White Van, however, is what Darnielle chooses not to share with us. There are small mysteries with gaps that he lets the reader fill in through context and an understanding of his character, and even smaller questions that linger long after the book is closed. Because what Wolf In White Van comes down to (one of many things, really) is how we fumble through our pain and how incredibly undignified that process truly is.

Sean’s pain is on the interior and the exterior, physically and mentally, an already on the edge case pushed even closer to the edge by the ennui of adolescence and a misguided attempt at holding on too tightly to what he loves. Teenage me completely identifies with Sean and his inability to face adulthood squarely. It’s a crisis that’s been written about and dissected by other authors, but rarely as delicately and honestly as Darnielle does. Adult me, however, can’t help but feel remorse for Sean’s poor judgement and his actions—the ones he is responsible for and the ones he is not.

Wolf In White Van isn’t a story of remorse or even sadness. It’s a story rife with pop culture, the kind of pop culture that drives our lives and eases our waking hours. It’s the pop culture of collectors and amassers who unhealthily obsess over cult films, indie music, and suburbia lifestyles. (As a companion piece to Wolf In White Van, I recommend Anthony Papalardo and Max G. Morton’s fantastic Live…Suburbia! for a reminder of how deep our nostalgia and identity run.)

Sean wanders through video stores, arcades, and musical realms desperately looking for something to grab hold of. Anything that might relieve the malaise of existing, the dislocation of merely floating in and out of the frame.

And so, once we come to the end, have we earned the ending that we are delivered? Are Sean’s actions justified? Do we feel for him? He’s supposed to be our guide, in more ways than one, but is he trustworthy? I can’t say, I can’t say. I’m conflicted about so many things within Wolf In White Van: it’s errant plot structure, it’s divulgence of emotions too raw to reconcile, it’s middling protagonist who demands nothing from the reader and is given too much in return.

At it’s core is that silent conflict, the conflict that never resolves itself and keeps your brain awake at night. It’s the kind of conflict that most all of us struggle with. Certainly the kind of conflict that Darnielle’s songs struggle with. And like his songs, we’re looking for our own selves inside someone else. We’re not there, it seems; we’re only here, now, relying on someone else to provide us with momentary happiness. Isn’t that enough?

Wolf In White Van

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