I feel like even after a week from finishing it, it’s still too early to talk about WOLF IN WHITE VAN. That I might not be able to discuss the full breadth of how and what it means to me because I don’t even know all the ways it has affected me or made me realize things yet. But I’ll still try. (I tried not getting into any spoilers but I just have to discuss some symbolism and shit so there might be spoilers? Not plotwise though. Ack, just tread carefully?)
Title: Wolf in White Van
Author: John Darnielle
Date of Publication: August 1, 2015 (paperback)
Source: Gifted by Jean!
Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move. Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in Southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian – a text-based, roleplaying game played through the mail – Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.
Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.
It took me two chapters to immerse myself into John Darnielle’s WOLF IN WHITE VAN, this dark, self-aware, and existential read. I was quite lost at first but then I realized that the beauty of this book is in not knowing everything right away. You gradually get to know Sean from his thoughts, opinions, and feelings, interspersed with his memories, and what is currently happening in his life. It unfolds like a mystery, the reader thrust into Sean’s mind without a prologue, and we get to our grips and find our footing slowly but surely, helped by Darnielle’s prose that succinctly yet vividly nails depression and feeling lonesome. I didn’t want to put it down as I had questions I needed answers to now now now. But I had to put it down on many occasions just so I can mark all the passages that struck me. Yes, it’s that kind of book.
I thought this book would be more about Trace Italian and as I play Dungeons & Dragons, I was definitely interested in that. While I’m surprised that there wasn’t as much about Trace Italian as I foresaw, instead it was more introspective in nature, focusing on Sean’s psyche, I welcomed the unexpected. I embraced it and I loved how it was completely about Sean. While sure, it made me want more from the book (probably why it didn’t garner all the stars and all the love from me), I also acknowledge that narrative choice by the author so all is well.
It’s so hard for me to discuss this book as it has so many facets that we can mine for endless discussions. In fact, after I read the book, I immediately had to discuss it with Jean and we ended up going at it book-club style, pointing out different events in the novel and probable meanings and symbolism. Aside from tackling depression, having dark thoughts, feeling lonesome, and being isolated and alone, it also showed that our parents and upbringing affect us both in the littlest and the biggest ways. Grown-up Sean paints his parents as kind and understanding but as we go back in time, back to the moment that resulted to his disfigurement (you can probably guess how it happened), we find that his parents were not great. They were present but absent. As Sean tells his friend Kimmy at some point when they were seventeen, cool parents are parents who know nothing. His parents were cool, they let him do whatever, but it might probably because they don’t care much.
And oh gosh, the meaning of the title. I didn’t get it right away but after discussing with Jean, it all came crashing down on me and I had chills. Fucking wolf in white van. Here’s the full quote.
“But at that moment all I could see was the wolf in the white van, so alive, so strong. Hidden from view, unnoticed, concealed. And I thought, maybe he’s real, this wolf, and he’s really out there in a white van somewhere, riding around. Maybe he’s in the far back, pacing back and forth, circling, the pads of his huge paws raw and cracking, his thick, sharp, claws dully clicking against the raised rusty steel track ridges on the floor. Maybe he’s sound asleep, or maybe he’s just pretending. And then the van stops somewhere, maybe, and somebody gets out and walks around the side to the back and grabs hold of the handle and flings the doors open wide. Maybe whoever’s kept him wears a mechanic’s jumpsuit and some sunglasses, and he hasn’t fed the great wolf for weeks, cruising the streets of the city at night, and the wolf’s crazy with hunger now; he can’t even think. Maybe he’s not locked up in the back at all: he could be riding in the passenger seat, like a dog, just sitting and staring out the open window, looking around, checking everybody out. Maybe he’s over in the other seat behind the steering wheel. Maybe he’s driving.”
By my (and Jean’s) understanding, it’s a symbolism on what makes us tick, what pushes us to think dark thoughts and act on them. The reason why we do bad things. It’s hidden or maybe asleep. But then maybe, just maybe, someone lets it out and since the wolf’s crazy with hunger now, he can’t even think and just wreaks havoc in its wake. But maybe it’s not even hidden, it’s riding in the passenger seat, always with us. Or it’s behind us. OR MAYBE IT’S DRIVING US. Chills, man. I had this phase where I researched about psychopaths and sociopaths and that’s what crossed my mind when I reread this passage. Or when we just break and all our bottled up anger or frustrastion blows up and gets the best of us. He can’t even think. GAH. John Darnielle, you are bloody awesome.
I heavily empathized and sympathized with Sean in WOLF IN WHITE VAN because he says these things that I just see myself in him. I knew I’ve been depressed some time ago but reading this makes me question that maybe I’ve been depressed for a long time? I just saw myself a lot in Sean, his being lonesome and that universal need and want for human connection. His difficulty in opening up and expressing, his building of walls around his heart, Sean is just a guy I could completely relate to. Reading this novel was such an immersive experience for me but at the same time, it was difficult too. I mean, this line!
“I didn’t feel like I’d really won anything, but I had come through the day no worse off than I’d come into it, which, as I have been telling myself for many years now, is a victory whether it feels like one or not.”
MY HEART. And this:
“Here and there, alone, reflecting, I’d bump up against what felt like a buffer zone between me and some vast reserve of grief, but its reinforcements were sturdy enough and its construction solid enough to prevent me from really ever smelling its air, feeling its wind on my face.”
“I didn’t have a whole lot of friends anyway, so I didn’t feel abandoned so much as reminded.”
I JUST CAN’T. MY FEELINGS. Yeah, Sean, you wouldn’t get hurt as much if you didn’t have a lot of people that can hurt you.
But even though this book made me sad and melancholic, it was also hopeful in a way that even though Sean had been suffering from depression, he’s here. He’s living and he feels normal. Who are we to judge that he isn’t in fact living at all, just holed up in his apartment? He’s here and he’s living. And he’s content, in his own way.
Dare I say do read Wolf in White Van if you loved Catcher in the Rye or if you’re in the mood for something like it. I do hope you end up picking up WOLF IN WHITE VAN so we can discuss! And if you’ve already read it, please talk to meeeeeeeeeeeee. I highly recommend this book, with its profound and beautiful prose. I mean, duh, John Darnielle of Mountain Goats wrote it and have you heard the lyrics to their songs? Yeah. Imagine that being a novel. (And Wolf in White Van is yet another proof that I love anything written by musicians!)