Wolf in White Van: Outline of a Scorched Life

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, is about a person without a future exploring the past. It’s narrated from the point-of-view of Sean Phillips, a man with a severe facial disfigurement who looks over the worlds he’s created — both fictional and real — with a sense of resigned bafflement. When he was 17, Sean shot himself in the head. As an adult, he makes games for a living — text-based choose-your-own-adventure games, played through the mail and set in a post-apocalyptic world. Players search for the entrance to the Trace Italian, a mythical walled city that houses the last bastion of human civilization. The story is told backwards in segments that ultimately converge on the decisive point of Sean’s life, the moment he pulled the trigger.

But really, what is Wolf about? I can’t really say — there isn’t a lot of clarity in it. I have a bunch of ideas, but I also get the sense that this is a novel that withholds answers to reveal something else in their absence. It’s definitely about the risks and rewards of imagination. This book was written by the lyricist of the Mountain Goats, a man who knows the power of nostalgic and bittersweet imagery. The Mountain Goats are a band beloved by youths with chips on their shoulders and memories of suburban childhoods. Darnielle’s lyrics are saturated with references to the pop culture of outcast Americana — fantasy novels, games, driving down the highway in your shitty car at full speed, and Satanism. They’re also filled with what seem like images from his own life, which are universal enough to resonate with his audience, but contain tics of specificity that make them seem like they really happened. If you were or are a nerdy kid with some deep-set ennui, you’d probably dig The Mountain Goats, as well as this book, which is situated well within the mind that hasn’t quite processed adolescence.

This book most reminded me of the Joelle Van Dyne sections of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There are a number of superficial similarities: both Joelle and Sean suffer from facial disfigurements (although Joelle’s condition is ambiguous) and are trapped in their own labyrinths of words. Like in Wolf, the central events of Infinite Jest are approached but never addressed, like the asymptote of a curve, intangible except for the implications of its surrounding residue.

At its core, Wolf depicts the decay of cause and effect. This is illustrated in the tension between its two worlds. The Trace Italian is composed entirely of cause and effect — the player is presented with a situation, four set reactions, and the choice between them. The choice’s outcomes are predetermined and constant. Sean’s life, however, adamantly denies cause and effect. Through the backwards temporal structure, the audience is presented with effects first and expects the causes to be revealed later on, but they never appear. While Sean creates a world of rigid causality, his own life vehemently defies this principle. For example, there’s Lance and Carrie, two teens whose infatuation with the Trace Italian leads to tragedy. Their story seems of great significance in the early goings, but vanishes at the midpoint. The one figure that really seems to preoccupy Sean throughout the entire novel is Chris Haynes, the player who recognized the perils of the Trace Italian on his mental state and chose to out himself prematurely. He’s an image of what Sean could’ve been.

As soon as I finished Wolf in White Van, I became profoundly sad. I don’t know whether this was a direct response to the book or due to personal undercurrents of my mood (probably a bit of both), but it seems to have conjured something within me that I’m having trouble vocalizing. The emotions that Wolf evokes cannot be easily vocalized, and that’s part of the point, I think. This novel, which starts from the endpoints, rushes towards origins that never materialize, but that hover along the edges of the world, like tension in a marriage that the children are old enough to recognize but not understand. It’s worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of The Mountain Goats or just someone who has held onto the teen within you.

There’s something inexplicable about Sean Phillips: he seems to cling to something unspeakable deep in his soul, something that Darnielle understands, and, as it turns out, I do too. Judging by the breadth of his influence, there are others. In the end, all I can say is that you are what you are, in all your fucked up glory. The thousand strings of reason that made you this way have all long dissipated, and the past is a scorched desert, offering neither sanctuary nor answers to the truly fractured self. If you still have a future, savor it — it’s the only way out.

Featured image courtesy of www.fsgworkinprogress.com

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