Review | John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van

by Arielle Bernstein

I feel, as I think most Mountain Goats fans do, profound affection for the words of John Darnielle, whose raw storytelling traces the full range of human emotion and experience, from breathtaking joy to devastating loss.

A friend introduced me to The Sunset Tree when I was in grad school, at a time when I still considered myself primarily a poet, when I was recording simple songs on my little Sony Vaio and trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do with my life after I graduated. Darnielle writes for the 14-year old self you know is always, at some level, going to be a part of you—the parts of you that are wild, overly sensitive, a little less than fully formed.

Darnielle writes about beauty and brokenness, child abuse, and growing up. What distinguishes Darnielle from other confessional writers is his commitment to nuance. We learn about a small child terrified of an angry father who throws plates in, “Dance Music,” but on the same album we hear songs like “Pale Green Things,” where an adult reflects on how the one thing he remembers after hearing about this father’s death is the gentle experience of visiting a racetrack together.

Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s debut novel, is a book about choices, how making one choice always precludes making others. Like the vast majority of his songs, this story centers on the life choices of an angry young man, from his teenage years to adulthood. Sean Phillips is the creator of a role-playing game called Trace Italian, a man who as a teenager sustained a horrific injury that left him disfigured and cut off from the world. Sean’s appearance renders what we learn is happening on the inside of Sean visible. In one scene, shortly after the incident, Sean is talking to his mom about the possibility of independent living once he turns 18:

“ ‘I worry you’ll be lonely,’ she said. She was crying. ‘I was going to be lonely anyway,’ I said, which I didn’t mean to come out the way it did, but it did, and besides, it was true.”

Throughout the novel, the reader is asked to think about the nature of cause and effect. When two teenagers who play Sean’s game end up living out his story in the real world, with disastrous results, he is taken to trial. Did his deftly woven, individualized game cause their death? Was Sean’s disfigurement inevitable, or was it something that could have been prevented?

Throughout Wolf in White Van, the human psyche is depicted as a maze to which we are constantly drawn back, even when we seem to be just on the verge of escape. Darnielle’s interest in portraying trauma as something visceral and also deeply nuanced digs at one of the most haunting and troubling aspects of being human. Although revisiting painful memories and trying to make sense of a past that is gone but not forgotten is often frightening and overwhelming, at times it is also oddly comforting. After all, when sadness becomes what is familiar, nothing else quite feels like home.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The MillionsThe RumpusSt. Petersburg Review andThe Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.