Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we sat down with our first piece of fiction, Wolf in White Van, the debut novel from Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle (out this week from Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In the novel, Sean, creator of a popular, text-based, mail-order RPG (role-playing game) called Trace Italian, finds himself forced to confront his troubled past after two of his game’s subscribers tragically fail to separate fantasy from reality. Read on to see the Book Club’s reaction to Wolf in White Van. (P.S. it was just long-listed for the National Book Award)
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Megan Ritt, Contributing Writer
— Michael Madden, Associate Editor
Recent Book Club Reviews:
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
31 Songs by Nick Hornby
Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello
Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul
Purchase: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle here.
Matt Melis (MM): John Darnielle, like a small handful of other singer-songwriters and celebrated lyricists, gets tagged with the “literary” label from time to time. He’s also written a book-length entry on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality for the 33 1/3 series. However, Wolf in White Van is our first glimpse at Darnielle the novelist. What were your thoughts on Darnielle’s prose and style, Mike?
Michael Madden (MMA): If not in his music, then definitely by the look of his masterful Twitter account, Darnielle seems to have musical and other cultural debris on his mind at all times. That’s why, at first, I was worried Wolf in White Van would be too dense, but I was relieved to find that it isn’t. Darnielle is funny, sometimes darkly, but he’s not indulgent. I was also impressed right from the start by his knack for specificity, when our protagonist, Sean Phillips, recalls a “cluster memory” of being unable to walk down the stairs in his home following his accident; his father carries him instead. He’s soon onto illuminating the feeling of passed time that comes with re-noticing certain objects in your home. Moments like those are what make Sean seem so near, despite the paranoia that’s come in the two decades since his accident.
Megan Ritt (MR): I agree, Mike. Half the joy of reading Wolf was the extended look inside Darnielle’s head. One of the most special things about the Mountain Goats’ music is all of these little moments, these little pieces of lyric that feel so deeply, personally true to individual listeners, and there are moments like those here in spades. The Mountain Goats’ protagonists tend to be hyperbolic versions of particular characteristics or emotions — quirk, nostalgia, depression, anxiety, anger, etc. Sean embodies little bits of all of these ideas and makes them flesh. It feels like Darnielle constructs him like many of his other characters — as a fragmented, amplified version of his own interior experiences, cultural observations, and wild imaginings. We just get to spend so much more time with Sean than with Darnielle’s lyrical characters that we get to know him on a much deeper level. The real genius is that Darnielle manages to knit together all these disparate, disjointed pieces and somehow comes out with a narrator who still feels relatable. I think it all comes back to the veracity of his inner monologue.
Initially, I shared Mike’s concern about the writing being precious; it’s one thing to write a song (or even a lot of songs) and another altogether to write a 200-page novel. It was affirming to see Darnielle’s style carry over to this genre. He’s dark but not depressing, revealing but not pandering, both playing to extremes and remaining extremely believable.
MM: He does show a tremendous amount of restraint – surprising for a first-time novelist who typically works in song form and now had a couple hundred blank pages at his disposal. More impressive, though, is how Darnielle’s prose style reflects who Sean is at different points in his life. For present-day Sean, the language is crisp, economical, and matter-of-fact, perfectly conveying the simple and peaceful existence he’s carved out for himself. But when that same Sean turns back to his youth or the period following the accident – when he conceived and began working on his first RPG, Trace Italian — we get occasional bursts of a much more descriptive and vibrant language to describe those particular Seans.
So, what did you guys think of Sean? After all, we’re inside his head the entire novel.
MR: I think the really special thing about Sean as a narrator — and the factor that elevates this book from mere curiosity into a meaningful contribution to literature — is the unfiltered honesty of his inner thoughts, to which only the audience is witness. There’s one part when, listening to his father talk about the consequences of the accident, Sean says, “Dad’s little pausing stutter only slowed him down a little; I felt impressed with him, proud of him. I wanted to tell him. There was no way to tell him.”
This is just one example of all these little interior moments, almost too small to record, nothing you would write down in a journal or diary, but piercingly true, universal in a way that resonates. Sean’s interior life is so detailed here that it genuinely feels like living inside his head, but he’s much more interesting inside than one feels the average person would be. His obsessions are cataloged, explained thoroughly and as competently as he is capable of (though some things, like his love of truly intense music, defy clear explanation even here). There’s a part where Sean explores the idea of a thought driving someone to literal distraction, growing fixated on something otherwise harmless that somehow grows until it threatens to drive you quietly insane. It’s like Darnielle has somehow witnessed all the secret, embarrassing, unexplainable thoughts in the world and given them a sympathetic narrator with enough cynicism to keep things from growing maudlin. The extent to which Sean both explains himself to the reader — capably, captivatingly — and subsequently fails to explain himself to the people in his life is like nothing else I’ve ever read.
MM: Sean’s definitely not self-pitying, nor does he seek sympathy. The reference you make above, Megan, is Sean being proud of his father for talking straight to him, not pussyfooting around or treating him with kid gloves like many might treat someone who went through what Sean did. And that’s what fascinates me most about Sean, as Darnielle forces him – through an incident in which a couple Trace Italian players tragically push fantasy into the realm of reality – to peel back the layers of memory and take a look at his journey. He seems unequivocally okay with where he’s at now. He’s accountable. Just like the players who play his RPG, he owns his moves. He even refers to different events in his life as a “move” or “play.”
He seems so well-adjusted, but did you notice those few times when Sean has to combat his rising anger? Those moments seem out of character for someone so calm, reflective, and methodical, but they’re slipped in there. It seems Sean isn’t completely cured of what led him down his old destructive path, even though he truly is a different person now. He knows how to cope, but he’s not free of his old demons entirely. That necessary vigilance against a potential backslide had me intrigued, though Sean seems firmly in control most of the time.
MMA: I agree, Matt, that Sean isn’t self-pitying or seeking sympathy, although I feel some of the latter for him anyway. There’s a sadness in his acceptance of his situation, an emptiness that keeps him from wanting to assume a more conventional role in society: “It’s not like I can’t talk, but it is distracting to other people when I do,” he writes in a letter explaining why he chooses not to speak at a court proceeding. It comes off like his standard response whenever a Trace Italian gamer might ask to get to know him in person.
It’s true that people are often compelled, rightly or wrongly, to a few seconds’ glance at the guy at the mall with an eye patch or whatever. But you’re not going to avoid him because of his disability.There’s a question of whether or not the average person would avoid Sean rather than show a boosted degree of kindness to someone who has, inevitably, experienced intense feelings of isolation. Sean seems to think his disfigurement will give away the cause, and that, in turn, people will be misled by stereotypes of depression and other mental illnesses.
MM: Megan, I know you were particularly intrigued by how the book builds backwards towards a life-changing moment in Sean’s life. How did the two of you feel about the non-linear structure Darnielle uses to guide us through Sean’s life and, ultimately, back to that fateful moment?
MR: I love the backwards-building narrative, the story progressing forward in time even as Sean reveals more and more of the backstory, the moment which has come to define his life, one clue at a time. It gives the accident a similar effect to the apocalypse in The Road: It both matters what happened and it doesn’t. The focus of the story is not exactly how we got here but what we will do with the pieces we have left. I find that to be a very effective narrative device. When I started reading, I was crazy curious for clues, but the game details and Sean’s inner conversations are captivating enough that eventually I learned to relax and love the Trace.
MM: That’s right. The accident is actually the least interesting aspect of the book. About halfway through, we already know what happened to Sean. We’re being masterfully funneled to it. At that point, it’s almost the principle of Chekhov’s gun, isn’t it? If something is that crucial to the narrative, you have to show it — the “gun” must go off. I understand why the novel ends as it does — maybe it has to — but it’s a move away, in some respects, from what really interested me.
I think it’s natural to want to know why Sean’s accident occurred, but I admire Darnielle’s reluctance to over-simplify a complex person: “I try to see what makes him tick, but I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick.” It’s an explanation that explains nothing, or at least one that offers no useful information. We can go down that particular rabbit hole, but we’re searching for something that doesn’t exist, an absence. As Megan says, the beautiful element of the story is the series of moves that follow the accident. They, in fact, become the defining moments for Sean.
MMA: In an interview with Indy Week, Darnielle confirmed that the initial draft of Wolf in White Van began with what turned out to be the final chapter. I think he was smart to invert it. The reader can’t form many preconceptions about Sean this way. If the details of his accident were clearer, it would be easy to jump to conclusions and scrutinize his pre-accident self — “to over-simplify a complex person,” as Matt put it. Of course, along the lines of what Megan said, the structure is also a tactic that spurs the reader to finish the book.
MR: Also, can we talk about the Trace Italian? Because I am obsessed. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of play-by-mail games before this, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s actually a great real-life incarnation of the narrative, because obsession is a prevalent theme in the book, but seriously — can I play? Because I would. I want to buy Darnielle a beer and ask him all about this for hours. I kept wondering if he did all this research, Michael Chabon-style, or if he’s an aficionado. I suspect the latter.
MM: I’ve been spoiled by Netflixing entire seasons of shows in a sitting. How do you expect me to wait weeks for a mailed response, one that might only contain a few words and send me on a mundane task like foraging for roots? The Trace wouldn’t be my cup of radioactive tea, though I really liked those choose your own adventure books as a kid; you could skip ahead and cheat with those, though, and I always did. With my luck, if I played Trace, I’d be hanging on for dear life for weeks, and the move I mailed to Sean would get returned to me for insufficient postage. Do I really want to leave my life in the hands of the United States Postal Service?
MR: I would do it! I’m a big fan of video games, but I love the concept of a game that doesn’t hand out gold coins and achievements freely, that makes you wait and strategize. I would be the kid hopping up and down, waiting for the mailman.
MM: Or, in actuality, the grown woman hopping up and down, waiting for the mailman.
MMA: In that same Indy Week interview, Darnielle says even he couldn’t find any comparable by-mail games, which indicates to me that Sean went out of his way to create something that could feel alive to him but not actually require face-to-face interaction. The creator of any game that has the potential to drive its participants to extreme real-life lengths is likely to be admired in much the same way we view other artists in a positive light. It seems like Sean, though, is blind to the chance that people will have the same admiration for him.
MM: So, it’s clear we were all fans of this book. I’m curious, though. What were the big takeaways for you guys? What will stick with you long after the particulars of the Trace Italian fade from memory?
MMA: Sean’s stability through the years is a tribute to his having some sense of purpose, and that’s a valuable asset the book has going for it. On the other hand, that it’s so easy for me to see Sean socially rehabilitating suggests the kindness of the real world. In that sense, the book feels like a relief.
MR: My takeaway impression is that John Darnielle has some kind of crazy soul-window through which he can casually observe the universe. It’s been a month since I initially finished the book, and I am still mulling over the characters and ideas. I’m already looking forward to a re-read.
MM: Joseph Fink, who wrote a blurb for the book jacket, probably says it best. This novel “is a testament to the ways in which all of us use imagination to survive.” In Sean’s case, that imagination has been a destructive power for a long time, but here we get to see it transform into a creative force. That short passage in which Sean stares up into the ceiling and creates whole worlds out of specks, cracks, and bits of paint is one of the loveliest and most true-to-life depictions of the imagination at work you’ll ever see in a novel. Without moving a muscle, we see Sean make his escape.
MM: So, it’s that time again. When we take all that is good, pure, and passionate about art and assign it a cold, calculated, and generic letter grade. God, I love our job. What says the panel?
MR: A! This book has everything I want in my reading experience: intrigue, a little drama, compelling characters, and big ideas. This is the best book I’ve read this year.
MMA: A-. Darnielle’s resume as a songwriter is reason to believe, from the get-go, that we’re in the hands of a guy who knows in his bones how to move someone with words. That carries over to Sean’s effectiveness and believability as a character. And if his prose isn’t enough to enliven the book, then the narrative is.
MM: B+ Apart from some dry stretches where Darnielle maybe spends too much time filling out less imperative parts of Sean’s profile and story, this really is a stunning achievement. Idea-wise, it’s huge in scope without ever leaving the confines of one man’s headspace. It ends up speaking to more about who all of us are than you’d ever suspect.