The cover of Wolf in White Van looks like a maze. And it makes perfect sense, once you’ve read the book. The story is narrated by the protagonist, Sean. His face is disfigured and he implies he caused it one way or another but no details are given straight ahead. Sean’s descriptions of events move backwards and forwards in time, they alternate between in the moment narration of his thoughts, words, and actions and hazy reminiscences. Also, there are sections of text from a role-playing game that Sean created and allusions to attendant tragedies. Information is provided bit by bit, almost like you are moving in concentric circles like the ones on the cover. I am hamstrung in describing much more because the author, John Darnielle, sneakily metes out just enough intrigue to keep you wondering and reading on.
Wolf in White Van is the first full-length novel from Darnielle and it is a highly impressive debut (it was on the longlist for the National Book Award). It is a strongly thematic story if “deciphering” can be a theme. Figuring things out is the point of almost each passage. The reader is trying to figure out what happened to Sean and why. Sean’s parents are trying to figure him out both before and after his disfigurement. Sean’s clients are moving turn by turn through his elaborate, post-apocalyptic fantasy world. And Sean is coming to terms with the world, his life, and himself. At a time when the first question after a tragedy is “why?” Wolf in White Van suggests that there are no easy answers. Even the people at the center of a maze can’t always tell you how they got there.
It was only a matter of time before I deviated from my theme for the week. As far as I know, there are no songs inspired by Wolf in White Van but John Darnielle is the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the band The Mountain Goats so if you like his novel you should definitely give his records a try.