To remain in its arms forever: John Darnielle's WOLF IN WHITE VAN

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Book review: WOLF IN WHITE VAN, by John Darnielle (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2014), 209 pp.

I could explain that Wolf in White Van is a beautiful novel about pain. That it's the story of a teenaged boy who tried and failed to kill himself and has to live with the results. Or that it's the map of the world a damaged young man creates, first in his imagination, then in the form of a multiplayer mail-order game called Trace Italian, that saves his life — makes his life possible, after the accident — but kills someone else inadvertently. That's it's a novel told backwards, all action pulling back toward the horrible event itself, the horrible event becoming a kind of black hole of plot, its gravity drawing the reader through the story steadily, relentlessly, finally. Or I could describe it as a study in Zen, though the word is never used in the book, a lesson in accepting reality and letting go of judgment. It's a kind of detachment that's not easy to pull off in any case, but especially when the reaction to your appearance is simply, "Dude, your face."

"People don't usually understand this when I try to explain it, which is why I've stopped trying, nor will ever try again, no not in courtrooms nor in conferences: but when it came down to the actual moment, I was trying to make the right decision." This is Sean Phillips, years later, remembering but not exactly explaining, why he picked up that gun one night in high school. Wolf in White Van is Sean Phillips afterward, the Sean Phillips who found, somewhere in the blank - but not actually blank - white ceiling of his hospital room, a way to keep on living after the fact. "You could let your attention rest there for a while; you could imagine the future of the ceiling, the battles playing out up there, camps pitched when the building was new back in unremembered time… You can see the ceiling in the next room, following the splits of the ceiling in its neighbor, and the one beyond that in turn and then the greater canvas, the sky at night gone flat and painted white, the constellations in the cracking paint, the dust the cracks brings into being as they form, finding free land where none had been before their coming."

In the nothingness that is Sean's new life, he creates something: Trace Italian, a game of strategy in which players try to make their slow, hesitant, dangerous way to the center of an nightmarish North America and Kansas, where the great walled fortress-the Trace Italian- offers safety at last. In the year after his accident, Sean wrote all the possible moves to the game; now, years later, he mails them out, one by one, to long-distance players he'll never meet. Trace Italian is his life, metaphorically and really, his livelihood and his place of safety. His players stalk the imaginary landscape, move by move, but not Sean, master of the game. "I remain in the stasis of the opening scene, bits of gravel sticking to my face, cold night coming on. I am strong enough to endure it. I am strong enough to remain in its arms forever. I won't get up; I have seen the interior once. I'm not going back. One thing I've learned is it's better sometimes, in the weeds, to resist the temptation to stand up and follow the compass."

I can't tell you much more about Wolf in White Van other than this: you should read it. It's a mystery novel, in its own way. As soon as I finished it I was tempted to immediately begin reading again but I stopped myself. I will read it again. But not to solve the mystery, which can't be solved. At least, I don't think so. If I find out something different, I'll let you know.

Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.