John Darnielle crafts imaginary worlds for listeners to live in. From his small house in North Carolina, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the man behind the Mountain Goats—a lyrically-driven indie rock band that is nothing if not prolific—Darnielle guides listeners from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, song by song, seeking sanctuary in a savage world.
For anyone that knows the Mountain Goats, that probably sounds like a pretty accurate description of singer, songwriter, and novelist John Darnielle, but I didn’t write it. It’s possible that Darnielle wrote it, but more likely it was someone at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s a mildly edited description of Sean Phillips found on the book jacket for Wolf in White Van, I’ve just switched Sean’s name with Darnielle’s and swapped references to Sean’s play-by-mail roleplaying game “Trace Italian” with references to Darnielle’s band.
As someone who has listened to the Mountain Goats nearly every day since I first discovered the band, reading my fair share of interviews along the way, Wolf in White Van felt as though it were bursting with autobiographical bits, and listening to Darnielle read the audiobook led to an image of Sean as a scarred and disfigured Darnielle that I simply could not shake. What I’m saying is that this is one of the few works of fiction I have ever read where I do not believe I’m capable of severing the author from their work, and for better or for worse my familiarity with the Mountain Goats discography gives the character of Sean a depth and realism that I can’t be sure is really there in the text. So it’s possible that I am ascribing greatness to Wolf in White Van that it does not deserve on its own. I can’t be sure, but I’m okay with that.
What I can be sure of is that Darnielle has woven three timelines together near seamlessly, combining Sean’s life before his accident, his life following his accident, and his life during a lawsuit brought about by the parents of a teenager who played Trace Italian and attempted to take their roleplaying into the real world with disastrous results. Wolf in White Van is a mystery of sorts, but it’s one where the broad strokes—including the solution to the whodunit aspect of the mystery—are given and the reader is lured along out of a desire to flesh out the details about just what happened to Sean’s face and about how Lance and Carrie got so deep into Trace Italian that they couldn’t get out. Structurally, it reminded me quite a bit of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, but while O’Brien’s use of supernatural elements under the guise of dream sequences mixed with ambiguous memories left me unimpressed, Darnielle plays it straight through the majority of the novel. Both are successful reinventions of the mystery genre, but Darnielle’s approach makes Wolf in White Van feel sincere while In the Lake of the Woods felt like every other page had O’Brien winking at the reader saying “see this clever thing I did!”
Characters that see only a few pages of attention in Wolf in White Van feel like fully developed, real human beings, and I have little doubt that whether he intended it or not, this skill comes directly from Darnielle’s ability to craft a cast of characters in a few verses of a two to three minute song. And like the majority of Mountain Goats songs, there is a single recurring theme throughout Wolf in White Van. While Darnielle’s recent appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air would have you believe that the defining element of his music is pain, that’s really only a piece of the picture (listen to Darnielle and Terry Gross here, but be aware that there are some spoilers for the book both on the page and in the interview).
The reason why Darnielle has a fanbase that could easily be described as zealous is not because he writes about pain; it’s because he writes about survival and perseverance in the face of that pain. It strikes such a chord with his listeners and his readers because what is more essential to the human condition than the struggle to survive? While Sean and Darnielle may seem to have yet another thing in common at this point—Sean, after all, puts players into a post-apocalyptic survival horror world seeking safety in the titular Trace Italian—this is also where they diverge drastically. The Trace Italian appeals to the human survival instinct, but Sean’s very existence requires that he never actually grant sanctuary to his players, that he just give them token achievements and wisps of hope. Players of the Trace Italian are never allowed to find peace, or else Sean would eventually be unable to pay his bills.
In his music and in Wolf in White Van, Darnielle reminds his listeners and readers that there is perhaps no behavior more human than survival, than persevering through the pain.
Wolf in White Van is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and you can find a copy of it wherever quality books are sold. John Darnielle reads the audiobook, which is currently available on Audible.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.