Book Review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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Book review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van was a very new experience for me, but one I am now craving in other books. I cannot compare it to anything I've read before.

Wolf in White Van is told in non-chronological order from the viewpoint of Sean, a man living in seclusion since a disfiguring accident when he was a teenager. Over the course of the story we slowly get given pieces of what happened to him, but we also are given another story alongside of what's happened since. In his attempt to find something to do, he creates a play-by-post game called Trace Italian. Players find adverts for his game in magazines and comics, send off for instructions, and begin the game, sending in their moves to Sean who then responds with their progress in the game. As a lover of turn-based games and RPGs, this was the most engaging part of the story for me (as well as the frequent references to Conan, comics, fanzines, and sci-fi). Two teenagers become deeply involved in the game and, eventually, tragedy strikes. Sean is brought to justice for his actions, if it was really his fault at all.

Now, this is an odd book. As I said before, I haven't quite read anything like this. The structure is convoluted as you're thrust between Sean's life pre-injury and his life post-Trace Italian. Many sections of the book include long passages from Trace Italian itself, depicting a future America where savages roam the street and resources are scarce. It only occurred to me after reading that the seclusion in this wilderness is probably supposed to be symbolic of Sean's seclusion in his home, along with troubled relationships with his parents and weird experiences as he ventures outside and encounters members of the public.

I don't have a great deal to say about Wolf in White Van other than the fact I loved it and I want to spread the word about it. It was a unique tale told in a fun way. It made me yearn for a game like Trace Italian, even though I'm not sure if I would have the patience for it these days. Sean is an interesting and troubled character to read from, and I'm really looking forward to what Darnielle brings out next. My one criticism would be that I wanted more from the perspective of the teenagers who get in too deep with the game in the real world. I feel like they could have had an interesting perspective, one that is sorely missed.

Wolf in White Van was published in June 2014 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The hypnotising cover art is by Timothy Goodman.

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