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John Darnielle masters unreality with Wolf in White Van

In his first full-length novel, the Mountain Goats singer-songwriter crafts a story of escape and tragedy.

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John Darnielle, the singer, songwriter, and only consistent member of the Mountain Goats, wrote a novella, released in 2008 as one of the more offbeat entries in the 33 1/3 series, about Black Sabbath's 1971 album Master of Reality. His first full-length novel, Wolf in White Van, published last month, is evidence that the acclaimed lyricist has quickly become a skillful writer of fiction.

Recently long-listed for the National Book Award for fiction, Wolf in White Van is an intricately twisted book Darnielle pulls off with the easy confidence of an experienced novelist. It follows Sean Phillips, a young man raised on horror movies, Conan the Barbarian comics, and heavy metal, who survived a gunshot to the head at the age of 17. The circumstances surrounding the shooting are hinted at but not fully revealed until the very last page. What we do know is that "the accident," as it is usually referred to, ruined his face, his hearing, and many of his relationships, and left him essentially a recluse.

During the months Sean spent in the hospital after the accident, he invented another world—a destroyed future America where one's only hope of survival is making it to a fortress called the Trace Italian, in the middle of what was once Kansas. Once he leaves the hospital and lives on his own, he turns this world into a game played by mail. New players respond to an ad in a science-fiction fan magazine, then are sent a description of the world Sean created and the circumstances they find themselves in, followed by the words: "Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move."

Each move ends with a choice, and when players mail Sean their decision, he mails them their next move. As Sean puts it, Trace Italian "was a place where I could have adventures, and when I grew up, I wanted to share those adventures with other people. I wanted specifically to share them with people like me." Unbeknownst to him, two players start reenacting their moves in the real world, with horrific results, forcing Sean to reenter the reality he spends his time escaping in order to deal with the aftermath of his players' actions.

The novel unfolds nonlinearly, mostly in reverse. Darnielle has said the book's structure and title were inspired by backmasked messaging in music, specifically Christian folk artist Larry Norman's 1976 song "Six Sixty Six," in which a lyric played backward sounds like "Wolf in white van." The temporal jumps start to feel like moves in Trace Italian, showing how even small life events can open one door and close others forever. Sean looks back on his actions before and after the accident, and recognizes them as somehow both random and inevitable. As he says of his players, "Eventually they recognize the turns they've taken as segments of a path that can only belong to them."

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