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Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.

Read this article in Vhcle Issue 18

Read other articles by Jamie Thunder

Wolf in WhiteVan

John Darnielle


Reviewed by Jamie Thunder

Vhcle Books, Issue 18

Culture and fandom can do strange things to people – something that John Darnielle probably knows better than most. As the man behind The Mountain Goats he’s no stranger to obsession, whether his own or that of his own fans’ devotion, hunting down crackling early live tapes as though they have restorative properties.

So it’s no surprise that this, his debut novel, features a seventeen-year-old outcast with a fascination with tales of Conan the Barbarian. Conan himself echoes Darniellean themes of justice and legend, and the story that unfolds in Wolf in White Van is classic Mountain Goats fodder: hope, redemption, and pressing on regardless in the desperate promise that somewhere just beyond the horizon lies safety.

Lying in hospital recovering from a horrific, disfiguring injury, Sean Phillips creates a world of his own. It becomes a choose-your-own-adventure game, played by post by a small band of participants, all hoping ultimately to find the Trace Italian – a safe haven somewhere in an irradiated post-apocalyptic United States.

The few players we meet – via Sean’s recollections of the messages they include with their choices each turn – have the own reasons for playing, which we can only glimpse at. They represent Sean’s primary contact with the outside world, a world that doesn’t know how to deal with the chaos of his reconstructed face.

In such circumstances Trace Italian is a refuge for Sean, and the scrawled notes from players represent his primary contact with the world outside. But when the hermetically-sealed world Sean thought he’d constructed begins to bleed into the real world he has to again confront the blurred and shifting lines between fantasy and reality.

As the inside jacket immodestly puts it, Darnielle is widely considered to be one of the best lyricists of his generation, and there are lines in Wolf in White Van that could easily have found their way into recent Mountain Goats records rather than here: “Work through the ant-leg limbs of the star layer by layer until you find the shining heart, get there at last. Stay there.”

Part of fandom always comes with fear, particularly when your idols move into new areas. But the shift from tightly-packed lyrics to the more expansive requirements of a novel works well – rather than just a really, really long Mountain Goats song, he ports across the underlying sympathy and understanding for his characters, however messed up they might be.

The plot itself is winding and flits between time periods, meaning the whole piece only becomes clear afterwards. But there’s no huge payoff, nothing that suddenly reverses your perception of Sean or the story so far. Just the final pieces falling inevitably, devastatingly into place.

It would be no surprise, and oddly fitting, if Trace Italian were to cross over into the real world; it’s easy to imagine a diehard Mountain Goats fan replicating and expanding the turns in the book. But that would only reinforce the message of this unyielding, insistent novel – that your imagination and the world it creates are not quarantined from reality, however hard you try.