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Title & Author: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery/Suspense
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of seventeen, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of “Trace Italian”—a text-based, role-playing game played through the mail—Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America.
Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, and are explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called on to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tracing back toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.
Wolf in White Van, after reading The Talisman, felt like it was over just as I was starting. I was getting to know Sean Phillips, learning about his days spent managing plays for the role-playing game he created, Trace Italian. His life is different from mine in many ways but also similar – I can recognize the loneliness of working from home and spending much of your day solo. At the end of the day my husband comes home though, and I could go out in public without generally thinking that people are staring at me.
The reader learns of the aftermath of Sean’s injury early on in the book, and more details are sprinkled throughout, but you must wait until the very end to learn what led up to it. In the meantime, you follow Sean’s daily life: he selects a certain amount of mail to respond to daily, reads each “turn” from a participant in one of his games, and then selects the appropriate next turn to mail depending on what the user submitted. It’s pretty much like role-playing video games where you can choose from a set of predetermined choices, but keeping all of that straight in analog form sounds daunting to me.
We are also introduced to the few people in Sean’s life – his parents; his high school “friends”, whom he rarely sees, Teague and Kimmy; and Vicky, the nurse from the VNA (Visiting Nurse Association), who comes by to give Sean his sinus irrigation and do his cleaning and shopping. But the people who have the most unguarded interactions with Sean are the players of his games. Even though they never see each other, Sean seems to connect to the players in a similar way that people connect with actors on a television show – you feel like you know them but they’d probably be completely different in real life. Three of his players in particular are discussed repeatedly: Lance and Carrie (L + C), and Chris Haynes.
Chris Haynes was the first player of Trace Italian to request permission to leave the game. Most people just stop, but Chris mailed in a detailed letter explaining his own made up move to take himself out of the game and begging Sean to allow it. Chris’s behavior is mentioned a lot in relation to Lance and Carrie (who played as a team). Where Chris is an adult, Lance and Carrie are high school students. They play Trace Italian together, which is to say that they planned out and mailed in their moves to Sean together.
At some point, Lance and Carrie begin to take the game very seriously – the reader is never fully clued in to their thought process, probably because it was known only to Lance and Carrie – and there are disastrous results. Sean is summoned to a pretrial hearing to determine if he’s responsible in any way due to their interest in Trace Italian. Carrie’s parents want to find out the cause of her actions and who is responsible – who put those ideas into her head. This parallels the thoughts and actions of Sean’s own parents after his accident years earlier. If I had children, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same. So much of human existence is trying to find meaning in what happens in our lives but sometimes there is no meaning and you are only left with further questions.
Time goes back and forth often in the book. At one moment you’ll be in the present reading about the minutiae of Sean’s life or his appearance in court; in another moment you’re transported back to Sean’s past – either the day of the accident or the time shortly after when he was hospitalized. The puzzle of Lance and Carrie is revealed, piece by piece, in the same style. It’s a good plot device for this type of book which could otherwise be very slow.
One thing that was interesting to me were the references to places in southern California. Specifically Sean talks at one point about the Trinity Broadcast Network, a global Christian television station, because they were one of the only stations that didn’t sign off at 2am back before 24-hour programming. TBN is headquartered in Costa Mesa, California; I used to drive by their building almost daily before I moved to the Los Angeles area. The compound made it look like Christmas had nearly arrived all year long – I would have a heart attack looking at their electricity bill! He also discusses Pomona and Montclair, places I haven’t spent much time but imagine to have less to offer than the bustle of LA. I can easily picture teenage boredom in these types of cities, so close to a metropolis but far enough that you can’t easily get there to participate in anything fun.
Verdict: I think the beauty of Wolf in White Van was that it really makes you think about a variety of topics: life and death, teenage boredom, the aftermath of a traumatic injury, and ultimately not having all the answers. The only sections I could have done without were long strings of gameplay with all points leading to post-apocalyptic Kansas. This isn’t the type of book I usually read (though I might now) and it was exciting to mull it over after I’d finished it. It’s not a feel-good read but very worthy of the read all the same.
Recommended for: those who enjoy stories that build slowly over time – stories that make you think and don’t freely provide all the answers, and for people who like to draw their own conclusions. Also, anyone who wants to know what depression could feel like (I’m not sure Sean was depressed before his injury but the book had that sort of tone).