Occasionally, a book will hit you right where you live, and this one did. I can't tell you how or why, because that would give the book away and I really want you all to read this. But I need to tell you why and how. So...okay. Back when I was around fourteen or fifteen, I very nearly had an accident. It was small, and it was something I didn't have to go to the hospital for, but I very nearly had an accident. I wasn't being very careful, and I didn't pay attention because I was angry at my parents, and I almost had an accident. I wish I could tell you more about the whys and wherefores of what was going on, but overall, this book hit me where I lived. And hard. Very hard.
But back around the time I almost had an accident, another thing also happened. This was around the time that play by email games were really taking off all over the place. A lot of homes had high-speed internet for the first time, and this was just starting to become widespread. And I, isolated for the most part as I was save for a few interactions with friends and a school that partly hated my guts because I had no way of explaining what the hell was wrong with me and refused to grow up all the way, found a new outlet. A new safe space. A refuge. And, at the time, though I was driven out of my refuge by the simple fact that, as Depeche Mode said, "people are people" (and I had issues with social stuff. And grammar.), the idea of a refuge from reality stayed with me. But I could always disengage. Go back to being in the real world. Even if I didn't want to sometimes.
Wolf in White Van is about the people who couldn't disengage. The people who went a little too far, the people for whom their refuge is all they have. The people who aren't as lucky to have that disengagement, the way I don't seem to some days. It's a novel about people with a hyperactive fantasy life, because reality is just far enough out of reach. And even more than that, it's about the irrational acts people commit sometimes because the world doesn't understand them, it's about the grief felt when these things happen.
And it is brilliant.
More, as always, below.
"You go forward, or you die."
Wolf in White Van starts with Sean. Sean is the sole operator of a small company called Focus Games, a play-by-mail game service that runs out of a filing cabinet in his apartment. From his desk and filing cabinets, Sean creates the world of Trace Italian, a post-apocalyptic game of survival and an attempt to reach the mythical titular human settlement in a disaster-ravaged Kansas. While there are other games, Trace Italian is the most active and the one that takes up most of Sean's time. It has a small but dedicated subscriber base in the low hundreds, a group who interact strangely through the turn-based roleplaying game, sending in their personalized moves to Sean. Most of Sean's world is Focus Games, after an accident at sixteen that left him horribly disfigured with a face that "looks like a tire tread", a nasal cavity that needs to be irrigated daily, and an odd sense of a world he can no longer interact with in the way he used to. But his life is fairly uncomplicated.
Unfortunately, for two of his better players, Trace Italian becomes something of an obsession. Lance and Carrie, a pair of high school sweethearts, wind up taking the game way too far, and Sean gets caught up in the ensuing finger-pointing and trauma. The allegation that he's responsible for the tragedy that befalls Lance and Carrie unlocks memories that Sean has blocked out, memories about his accident, and memories about the days leading up to it. And so Wolf in White Van follows Sean backwards through his memories and through his day-to-day life, ending at the very incident that caused the mess in the first place, the incident that caused Sean to think up Trace Italian, and all the incidents that brought him to where he now resides.
I suppose first I should tell you, that plot description up there? It isn't exactly accurate. What John Darnielle has done with Wolf in White Van is to create a first-person sketch of a character, but obscure the most important events in his life. Simply discussing the plot verges on spoiler territory, as a lot of the events are obscured from the beginning. There's evidence of a court case, of course, and evidence that Sean's been in some kind of terrible accident, but very little of the context for either of these events is revealed until later. What this does is build a sense of ever-growing dread as the story gets closer and closer to an event that's telegraphed from the beginning, the context filling in more of the blanks until the final chapter, the chapter where you know what will happen, and that what will happen will destroy Sean's life utterly. And there's not a thing that can be done about it. There's no subversion, no flinching, it unfolds until the event happens, dragging you with it.
Another thing Darnielle does that I like is to keep the major events in the background until the end. The "present-day" sections of the story deal with Sean's life after the accident, the court case, and the eventual fates of Lance and Carrie. While these events are important to the story, the focus is on Sean and his life after the accident and after Lance and Carrie make their fatal mistake taking the game too far. Where any other novel would spend time on the accidents that caused Sean's life to take not one, but two turns for the worse (the second making him the target of death threats and afraid to leave his house), Wolf in White Van spends more time in the events' aftermath. It makes it unique in that many books show the events leading up to the tragedy, and then end the story. Darnielle shows that the aftermath is much more compelling and actually really sells that the aftermath is much more compelling. It also helps sell the sense of dread in the piece-- since this isn't the story of a decline, but the story of what comes after the decline and collapse, and helping make sense of the decline and collapse when it happened.
And finally, what I love the most about this book? There's no agenda. It's just a character study of a deeply troubled person that doesn't attempt to discern a reason for their behavior. It's another thing that's rather refreshing about the whole mess. A lot of books that tackle similar topics try to explore the underlying reasons behind such acts, and the reasons are there if you want to look for them, but Wolf in White Van steers clear of any such questions, allowing the character study to provide any reasons or lack thereof. Darnielle doesn't spell anything out, and shouldn't spell anything out, as a large part of the tension of the book is about these decisions and presenting the events simply as events. I even re-read the final two sections, looking for something, anything to explain the behavior. There was nothing. So I sat there for a few moments devastated, but then realized that was part of the point. There is no point to the ending. Sometimes, the feelings just get to be too much, or the irrational process breeds a certain string of thoughts, and then--
And then we have an accident. Or almost do.
Or we go chasing some dream and wind up in a bigger mess than the one we ran away from. There's no underlying reason, and you can chase the chain of events if you want, but the act itself? There doesn't have to be a reason for the act. It's something that comes out of the emotions, the feelings, the need to get away from what's around us.
Now, I understand this isn't for everyone. Reading bleak, dread-filled character studies with vivid descriptions of traumatic and disfiguring injury is not something I would wish on anyone. And some may see this as a book without much of a plot, or much of a payoff. That's valid. If that's what you're looking for, I suggest you head elsewhere. But for those willing to read a dark portrait of people who desperately want to escape, for those who want a methodical book that will not let go even as it draws you deeper into darker territory, with the wrenching knowledge that the inevitable will happen, the event will be explained...
Well, Wolf in White Van is the book for you.
So if you think this is the kind of book you'd like to read, or if you see a little of yourself in the hero(es) who just want to escape, if you find yourself intrigued by what's depicted here, then please, buy this book. It's a first novel and probably a little rough, but it's tautly written and the methodical feelings it creates make the whole thing worthwhile. If not, well, you didn't miss much. It's an interesting book, but I completely understand passing it by.
Thinking of something clever here would only cheapen my message. See you next week.
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
We start a new theme month as things loom: Either a Redemption Month, where I review four books I never got to, or a horror month where I give some interesting books to read along Halloween. Or maybe even a King Month, since I haven't discussed Big Steve in enough detail already. Still, see you then!