Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
Pub. Date: September 16, 2014
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Farrar, Straus and Giroux!!)
Summary: Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of seventeen, 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, role-playing 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, and are explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called on to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tracing back toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.
Genre: Literary, Sci-Fi
Recommended for: Open-minded, die-hard fans of The Mountain Goats, RPG fanatics

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this one. As a fan of The Mountain Goats, of course I had to read Darnielle’s debut! Unfortunately, the magic he creates with his lyrics just didn’t come through in a full-length novel. I really am wondering if perhaps I’m missing something – much like Neverhome (one of the biggest disappointments of the year) – I seem to be on my own with my rating. Every other review I’ve come across, both from professional reviewers as well as average readers, has been nothing but glowing remarks.

Wolf in White Van has an incredibly interesting premise that could – and should – have been amazing. Sean, a man horribly scarred and disfigured after an unnamed accident, lives his life through a game he created. Trace Italian is a role playing game played through the mail where players navigate their way through an America that’s little more than a wasteland. While many players simply mail Sean their envelope along with their move (from a list of options), a few long-time players start to include messages and even letters. Over time, Sean learns more about these players, begins to see them as real people.

Two of those players are Lance and Carrie, high school students from Florida. When their game choices become reality fingers start pointing at Sean and it isn’t long before he finds himself in a courtroom, defending both himself and his game in front of an audience.

I don’t know whether I should be more disappointed in myself or in this book. Was I missing something? Was it all an allegory for something greater, something my piddly mind couldn’t grasp? Or is this a case of a not-so-great book getting love and praise because of the author’s fanbase? Both are entirely plausible and it’s a shame I couldn’t get into this one!

When it comes down to it, I suppose my disappointment lies with the vagueness of the storytelling. Sean is permanently injured and it’s never fully explained what happened. As a reader, that’s the kind of detail I need to know. He’s been living like this since he was seventeen, but he never talks about it. It’s never shown through a flashback or a memory. How could I possibly be sympathetic toward this character (who was, honestly, unlikable) if I don’t know what happened to make him the person he is now?

Upon finishing Wolf in White Van, I spent a good hour reading reviews – what were they seeing that I couldn’t? That was back in August. Now, weeks later, I’ve gone back and looked at those reviews again, the glowing praise, the life-changing commentary. Still I’m not getting it and that more than anything is what frustrates me. Even when I don’t like a book I can still see the other side, understand just what its fans find so appealing. That’s not the case here. Wolf in White Van is barely over 200 pages that still managed to take a few days to read. I hate to say it, but I think I’ll be sticking with Darnielle’s songs, rather than any upcoming novels. I will say though, that the cover is simply stunning. The title is a metallic foil and when the sun hits it just so…gorgeous.


3 thoughts on “Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

  1. Bless you for this post. I just wrapped up this book and felt like I’d missed something. I flicked through Goodreads, hoping for some kind of answer, but people were mostly like “This was a thinker! Wow!” as opposed to “I totally got this.” I don’t… like him. Or understand why he blew his face off, especially when his relationship with the girl seemed promising.

    To be fair, I think part of the problem is that I really enjoyed Ready Player One and this wasn’t that. It had that “role playing games to escape reality — people in danger” pitch that was similar. I also got amped up about that shiny cover. Like a child. The inside wasn’t as delightful as wiggling that cover back and forth in different lighting situations.

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