Get Lost in the Trace Italian: A Review of “Wolf in White Van”
Perhaps best known for his work as the lead singer, guitarist and main lyricist of the indie band “The Mountain Goats”, John Darnielle’s novel, “Wolf in White Van” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) is the sort of debut novel you’d expect from him. The novel is full of the heartbreakingly beautiful and poetic observations of the human condition that Darnielle’s known for. “Wolf in White Van” is very different from a lot of other novels out there, as it contains very little character interaction, mostly takes place inside the main character’s head and is told backwards.
The protagonist, Sean Phillips, is a grown man telling the tale of how he became the reclusive, disfigured person he is today. The novel begins with Sean talking to a small boy on a park bench. The boy asks Sean what happened to his face and why it happened. When the boy declares that Sean is a “fibber” when Sean says he doesn’t know why it happened, Sean begins to move backward through his life and everything that lead up to that moment on the bench. From there, each chapter becomes the cause of the chapter that precedes it, and Sean’s life is woven together with excerpts from his greatest creative achievement: the text-based, mail-order, role-playing game “Trace Italian.”
Sean developed the game’s concept when, as a teenager, he was in the hospital due to a tragedy that left him permanently disfigured. The game revolves around the titular Trace Italian, an impregnable fortress located in post-apocalyptic Kansas, and discovering the shelter is the objective of the players of Sean’s game. The players are fleeing California after the meltdown of a nuclear reactor, which causes murderous mutants to form and civilization to collapse. “Trace Italian” is an immersive game of survival wherein at every turn, players face obstacles such as roving bands of robbers or clans of survivors led by bloodthirsty warlords. After two teens playing “Trace Italian” end up in serious trouble, Sean is faced with a lawsuit at the hands of their parents that forces him to reevaluate what led him to this juncture in his life.
“Wolf in White Van” is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. There’s very little external interaction between Sean and other characters – only a handful of scenes include Sean conversing with other people, and when they happen, the reader should take note. Most of the novel is spent inside of Sean’s head, yet the reader never feels as though they entirely understand him, just as Sean himself doesn’t completely understand who he is.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the fact that, despite being a disfigured man, Sean very matter-of-factly discusses his injuries and how his life has changed since the night of his teenage accident. Darnielle slowly and naturally reveals the extent of Sean’s injuries and the details of the life-changing event, and he doesn’t beat the reader over the head with them. While Sean is clearly a troubled man, the reader isn’t hit with too much detail in a blatant and forced attempt to get them to learn from something from Sean’s experiences – a vastly overdone technique employed by authors who want to make seriously ill or disfigured characters paragons of wisdom who are meant to learn something profound and teach it to others. Sean doesn’t have any grand epiphany about the meaning of life because of his injury – he isn’t suddenly full of wisdom because of his experiences. As a result, the reader learns so much more from Sean than they would if Darnielle was using Sean as a mouthpiece for positive clichés about triumphing over adversity and being strong through personal tragedy.
Instead, Sean’s wisdom comes in very blunt statements such as “There are only two stories: either you go forward or you die.” Though Sean is referring to moves in the “Trace Italian, “ this view accurately fits how he views his life. He says that he doesn’t allow himself to become involved with the people playing his game, claiming: “I keep myself out of it; I interpret and react, like a flowchart responding flatly to a person who’s asking it how to live.” This “Trace Italian” mindset is something that has spilled over from the game into the way Sean lives his life, avoiding other people and reacting without emotion. Should emotion threaten to take hold of him, Sean shuts it down.
Because Sean spends so much time inside of his head and, inevitably, the “Trace Italian” game that has become his life, Darnielle makes frequent references to actual “moves” within the game. While these excerpts of the gameplay are meant to parallel Sean’s life (many of the “Trace’s” situations were inspired by events he experienced), they can be rather jarring at times and interrupt the flow of Sean’s thoughts. This renders some otherwise poignant moments a little lackluster, because the reader is jolted from Sean’s thoughts into the game, then pulled back into his consciousness. The references to the game occur most often toward the end of the novel, as Sean gets closer and closer to revealing what happened the night of his accident. This is probably Sean’s way of coping with emotions he had buried long ago, but it’s a bit off-putting to the reader.
Sean is a believable character full of complexities and contradictions. By the time I finished reading, I wasn’t sure what to think about him, but I knew he was going to be one of those characters that stick with me long after I closed the book. At one point, Sean declares: “You should avoid seeing too much of yourself anywhere: in the outside world, in others, in the imagined worlds that give you shelter.” This statement is ironic, because so much of who he is can be seen inside the “Trace Italian” and, despite Sean’s advice, it’s easy to see much of myself in him. Perhaps you will, too.
Overall, “Wolf in White Van” is a stunning debut novel from one of the greatest lyricists of the day. Sean declares about the “Trace Italian:” “There is something fierce and starved about first ideas,” and this is true of Darnielle’s first novel. There is something “fierce and starved” about “Wolf in White Van” and its unflinching look at a man who finds peace and sanctuary in his imaginary, post-apocalyptic vision of America.