Or why you should read Wolf In White Van,
by John Darnielle
Wolf In White Van is kind of a hard novel to pin down. I think I would classify it mostly as a mystery. The novel centres around the tragic life of Sean Phillips, a man who was horrendously disfigured as a teenager. Following the emotional and physical fallout of his injury, Sean turns inward and creates Trace Italian, an elaborate puzzle world of choices and consequences set in a post-apocalyptic United States. Now an isolated adult, Sean runs Trace Italian as a mail order roleplaying game and gets by. At least until Lance and Carrie, a pair of Florida high school students decide to play out their game in real life with disastrous consequences. Now Sean must reckon with the fate of these wayward gamers and his responsibility in their, and his own, defining tragedies.
I found Wolf In White Van to be highly compelling and exquisitely uncomfortable to read.
Part of this is that the novel is downright lurid to read. The main engine of Wolf In White Van is curiosity and the burning question of what exactly transpired when Sean was hurt and what exactly is the nature of his injury and disfigurement. This mystery unfolds expertly, slowly, and as a reader I found myself drawn in and deeply interested. But interested in a way that never quite felt appropriate. Reading Wolf In White Van feels like staring, like gawking. It feels like standing on the sidewalk watching the unfolding of a deeply private tragedy. It's the prose equivalent of rubbernecking a car wreck to staring at someone with an obvious disability. Which is a reading experience that feels transgressive, rude, and uncompassionate. It is also completely engrossing.
Wolf In White Van was also an effective novel for me in how it thematically explores the knife-edge balance of life. The novel explores the way choices, made in an instant, reverberate and can have endless, tremendous consequences. Which really showcases how fucking delicate life really is, how easy it is to have it all blown away with a slight misstep. And I found myself re-experiencing that moment of falling out of a tree as a child, that breathless moment of regretting a mistake, before slamming into the ground and breaking my collar bone. And, incidentally, barely missing impaling my chest on the stump of a bush; a bush whose roots I had half dug out that morning lending it just enough give to stop a puncture. This novel just taps right into that horrifying sense of irrevocability and the joy of still being here despite the fickle chaos of life. I guess what I'm trying to say is I found this novel emotionally involving.
I would recommend this book to anyone with too much curiosity for their own good. If you are the kind of person who can't help but poke your nose where it doesn't belong, to google any dumb, slightly rude thing you hear about, the mystery in Wolf In White Van will absolutely prey on this character flaw to great effect. I think the novel could appeal to any fiction fan: it's very well written and engaging, but I think it will absolutely gut the overtly curious introvert.