Wolf in White Van

Having been a fan of the Mountain Goats for years, I was excited to hear that John Darnielle was releasing a novel. I pre-ordered from Amazon, and read through Wolf in White Van during lunch breaks over the next week.

The story follows Sean Phillips, the creator of a mail based strategy game called Trace Italian. Phillips invents the game while recovering from a terrible incident that occurred in his late teens, using it to keep his mind active. The novel flips back and forth through time, filling in events and giving readers a sense of mystery and foreboding.

For me, the best parts of the book were finding out about Trace Italian’s game system and evolution over time. The concept of a text based RPG played by mailing responses back and forth is fascinating. I do not know if that exists outside of this novel, but it made me want to play.

The rest of the book details the events leading up to the terrible incident in Phillips’ life, along with the game’s connection to a real life tragedy of its own. The shifts in time are abrasive at first, but by the end, Darnielle weaves the pieces together making it feel cohesive.

The world presented is compelling, and I genuinely wanted to know and understand the main character. By the end, the author fills in many of those pieces, but the book never fully connects the motivations that drive the two big events in the book.  Other times, the narrative introduces information or characters that fall to the wayside, diminishing the weight they hold in the life of Phillips. These instances left parts of the story feeling incomplete. Even with those problems, I enjoyed the novel. Wolf in White Van is a good debut, and I hope to see more from John Darnielle.

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