What would you find if you cracked open the head of an adolescent California gamer who binges on bargain-bin Conan paperbacks and VHS copies of Gor and Krull? In his first novel, musician John Darnielle (front man, lyricist and often the sole member of the Mountain Goats; author of a fictional riff on the iconic Black Sabbath album Master of Reality for the 33 1/3 series) does just that. Wolf in White Van tracks backward in time through the life of Sean Phillips, a mid-30s survivor of a horribly disfiguring "accident" who now lives an introspective, hermetic life managing the players in an elaborate mail-order fantasy game he created during his hospital rehabilitation.
Called Trace Italian (based on a triangular Italian fort design), Sean's game is a post-nuclear-disaster quest to find shelter somewhere in the "fallow fields of Kansas." Advertised in small-circulation sci-fi magazines for offbeat gamers like his childhood classmate "Tits" Teague (with his "bound notebooks bulging with sketches of imaginary mountain ranges or mysteriously numbered dodecahedrons"), Trace Italian is an old-school postal version of the arcade video games Sean played as a kid. Subscribers mail him their moves and he replies with the next level of options. As a recluse whose closest human contacts are therapists and nurses, Sean savors the friendship of his players--until a young couple take the game too literally and suffer permanent catastrophe in a frozen Kansas ditch with "their minds gone past the point of panic to that self-drugged state where everything looks cool."
With its labyrinthine structure resembling a role-playing game, Darnielle's novel is compulsively readable--a Tom Cruise movie with brains. Sean's refreshingly unpretentious and unembittered voice tells of his many tedious months of medical treatment: staring at his hospital room's ceiling, watching Trinity Broadcasting Network ("wolf in white van" is a phrase from a Christian rock song played backward, which sounds like a "hole opening up in the earth out in the dark, abandoned desert"), and creating the twists and dead-ends of Trace Italian. Gradually he reveals his childhood isolation and fascination with the imaginary world. As he explains to his parents, "I hardly knew anything about the real world... [the game] was a place where people could feel safe and have fun, where nothing ever really happens except inside our heads." When Sean finally tells of the night of the "accident" that permanently scarred his face ("like tire tread... a shag rug... bent wheel spokes pressed into taffy"), Darnielle has already neatly pulled readers into his own game and provided a lasting glimpse inside the head of a young man trying to cope.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness on August 25, 2014.