Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, singer/songwriter of the Mountain Goats, got a lot of attention when it was released because, well, it’s a readable celebrity debut. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. I guess it was just OK.
Sean Phillips is a hermit. After surviving an accident that left his face disfigured, he runs his business, a role-playing game called Trace Italian, out of an apartment where he lives alone. The game is played via mail – players send Sean their moves in the game and he responds with the moves’ effects. He gets to know, however distantly, the Trace Italian participants through their writing, gathering tidbits about their personalities and lives. When a couple of players begin to take the fantasy world too seriously, Sean finds himself tangled in a debate of ethics and responsibility.
The highlights of the novel take place when Sean interacts in the real world, rather than in the Trace Italian. When Sean meets two teens in a parking lot who blatantly stare at his scars, the reader witnesses how visually unsettling Sean’s disfigurement truly is. Flashbacks to Sean’s childhood are equally compelling. Darnielle’s descriptions of Sean’s unease as a teenager and his strained relationship with his parents, particularly his mother, leave an impression.
While the premise of the game and its effects is an interesting one, I just couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t get myself to care about the Trace Italian-related plotlines.
On the other hand, the jacket is absolutely beautiful. It’s bright and shiny and strangers stopped me in public to ask what the book was. (This photo doesn’t do it justice.)
Book: Wolf in White Van
Author: John Darnielle
Type: Overrated but okay debut novel by a celebrity
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