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.–John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van
Sean Phillips, the disfigured narrator of John Darnielle‘s highly buzzed-about first novel Wolf in White Van, pushes said wolf in said white van into possible existence when young, a boy with an imagination capable of hijacking reality. Young Sean watches TV at all hours, eyes glazed, seeking “a sort of shelter.” After all the other networks have gone down late at night, the Christian network stays on and Sean stays glued, learning about how some rock music, when played backwards, plays satanic messages. Satanic messages like the simple, ominous, unclear, “wolf in white van.”
Darnielle has crafted this short, shocking novel with care, he’s built it just like one of those bewitched rock songs which contains a hungry wolf when played backwards. Less deft prose would crash this book. Here, the story you come to understand is something overwhelmingly large, almost repulsive, but so often not talked about in this deliberate, compassionate way.
Sean Phillips is imaginative above all else, game and fantasy-focused. After a disfiguring accident/incident in high school, he’s become a complete social isolate. Living reclusively to avoid scaring people with his marred face, he directs players through the post-nuclear meltdown world of Trace Italian, his mail-based role playing game. The game sounds amazing, and seems to be much more clear and simple to Sean than the real world.
Few manufactured landscapes are as foreign to me as the terrain of the angry adolescent male’s mind, so inexplicable I can’t even make generalizations about it here. Maybe this is why some of the most powerful books I’ve read attempt to take on this frontier, so often dropped from our cultural narrative as we focus on the sexualization of young girls. What about young guys, these days?
Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin introduced a young man so disconnected from physical contact, so plugged into chat rooms and visual delight, that he didn’t yet have the mental acuity to realize when he stumbled into a ‘To Catch A Predator’-like trap. Dave Cullen’s Columbine revealed disconnected kids totally lost inside their own minds, fueled by fantasy much more than anything around them. Not bullied, not trench-coat mafioso, but hormone-laden, romantic and imaginative guys who romanced their deaths into something worth doing.
Wolf in White Van joins this group. If books offer us understanding, a mainline into another’s thought process, then the most powerful books are the ones in which we find ourselves, page by page, understanding those among us that seem the least human, the least comprehensible. What begins as a possibly sympathetic story, of a man with a disfiguring injury, evolves into a story with so many flashes of dissonance that the text seems to shift around you and you realize you have possibly been empathizing with, or sympathizing for, a monster. Or look at things a different way, and you realize monstrous acts are always committed by struggling humans, trying to keep their own dark wolves in control, navigating mazes of problem and solution deep within their own minds.
Sean explains at one point, “Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark room.” Darnielle teaches in both ways here, building to a moment the reader knows is coming but stuns all the same. I’m not going to say too much about plot, other than that. If you’d like to know all the details, the reviews revealing them are out there. Wolf in White Van has already received a National Book Award nomination, and I don’t think this is the last we’ll hear about this little book.