If I had to pick a singer-songwriter to write a 200 page novel, John Darnielle would definitely be among my top 3. His songs are always intriguing, packed with ideas and he churns out an album nearly every year with the Mountain Goats. They’re not a wordy band with liberal thesaurus usage and literary fiction references. They’re simply great, imaginative storytellers with finely carved verses that leave an impact.
Still, novels have their own specific challenges that aren't in the forefront of songs. Sustaining and developing an idea for a long period, the temptation of purple prose and the rising action from scene to scene are all puzzles that you don’t expect every new novelist to nail. Technically, this isn't Darnielle’s first foray into published fiction. He wrote about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality for the 33 1/3 series by immersing it in a novella about a young psychiatric patient in 1985. It became one of the necessities of the series, one of the titles you mentioned when you wanted to explain how diverse and wide open those booklets could be.
This book is a different animal. Thirty pages in, I realized that wondering if he could pull off a novel was dumb. Of course he could. His writing is so incisive and patient that I started to think of him as a novelist that just so happened to have spent 20 years making music first. Judging by his placement on the longlist for the 2014 National Book Award, I’m not the only one that thinks that.
Wolf in White Van is about Sean Philips, a young man in Montclair, California who lives in isolation after a horrific childhood event disfigures his face. He spends his days running various by-mail role playing games, with his most important being “Trace Italian,” a turn-based, post-apocalyptic fiction that served as the necessary escapism for Sean following his disfiguring.
The character of Sean is an incredible portrait. We are planted so firmly in his head that we feel the weight of his day-to-day life, which is not explained in hyperbolic melancholy, but feels like an overwhelmingly tragic burden anyway. Sean is remarkably detached, devoid of any real desire and has made himself immune to the grief of his situation. He’s not the isolated dark fantasy fan that is filled with disdain for society that uses his appearance to fuck with people and get some small modicum of revenge. He’s genuinely aware of how his very existence is an inconvenience to the bubbled lives of other people, so he only goes to the store at early hours. He avoids waiting in lines because he knows the wet sound of his breathing freaks people out. He’s developed ways to disarm people he meets. Reading about it is a slow drip that takes place over the course of the book. A small note here and there add up until you feel completely and consistently drained for him and the life he is content to remain in.
The result of his isolation is that his external life is small, where rearranging his cabinets and feeding squirrels takes up his day, but his inner life is rich: full of Conan the Barbarian and fantasy books and managing the world of Trace Italian. But all of his escapism is by necessity. In that world, Current events don’t feel real to him, people are mostly disappointing, and he was an outsider even before the accident. It only forced him to delve deeper into himself, into a fortress that he’ll likely never return from.
The book’s use of escapism is similarly brilliant and harrowing. The way Darnielle describes the thrill of imagination, the way little things can set those synapses firing a million different directions, is heartening and accurate. Escapism is presented here as a monstrously powerful tool, far greater than any religion or faith, but also a comfortable isolation. Anyone who has ever struggled with their worst tendencies can understand Sean’s retreat into his inner world, although on a smaller scale. There’s a lot of ingenious writing that perfectly illuminates the way imagination and creativity works, the way drifting in and out of a fantasy works. That kind of insight about the mechanics of a character’s mind is what makes beautiful first person writing, and the fact that Darnielle does it without relying on hysterical poetry makes it all the more effective.
Wolf in White Van is an immensely re-readable novel that takes us into the world of a true outsider. Sean escapes into fantasy because it’s thrilling and meaningful, but readers will escape into his story because it obliterates any romantic notions of loneliness or any whimsical notions about the power of imagination. It’s a constantly heavy story without selling it so hard — it just reads like a strange slice of life, and you alone can recognize the greater wickedness of it all.