I know I’m a little old to say that a rock band changed my life, but The Mountain Goats did. The first time I heard “This Year” on The Mountain Goats thousandth album (No, they haven’t recorded a thousand albums, but damn they’re prolific) The Sunset Tree, something just clicked and I proceeded to listen to the song and the entire album for close to a year. I, of course, listened to The Mountain Goats whole catalog, and loved it. John Darnielle writes about the losers you went to high school with—who really weren’t losers at all (The song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” is an excellent example of this kind of song), you just didn’t take the time to get to know them—the pain of growing older and being slightly disappointed with life, of loneliness, and the simple joys of being alive.
Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf In White Van, resonates with the same verve, energy, and semi-darkness that The Mountain Goats bring to the table, and it might be that Darnielle may actually be a better novelist than he is a songwriter. (Yeah, I know, he’s written hundreds of songs, and only one novel, so the statement is a bit of a stretch)
Wolf In White Van is the story of Sean, a former high school “loser” (aka a jean jacket wearing heavy metal kid that is featured in more than a few Mountain Goats songs), who is horribly disfigured and spends his days in his generic apartment with very little personal stimuli other than visits from an at home nurse and a by mail post-apocalyptic role-playing game he created while recovering from the accident—it’s really more of an incident—which left him disfigured in the hospital called Trace Italian. (The game is also how Sean makes his meager living)
Sean’s life is extremely lonely and dejected. Along with the isolation he feels because of his disfigurement, he also feels rejected by just about everyone in his life, including his parents (Probably one of the most single powerful and telling paragraphs in the novel is when after Sean’s grandmother dies, his parents ask him not to attend the funeral because of his appearance) and former friends. Even the complex imaginary world of Trace Italian has been tainted when we learn that two of the games players decide to go live-action with the game and end up freezing to death, and Sean is now being sued for their deaths by the players families.
Despite the grievous events that have shaped Sean, I never saw him as a tragic character. I instead viewed him as an every man, who like most of us is perfectly fine with simply rolling along with his existence and living his stripped down life and running Trace Italian. Would he want his life to be different? Of course, but like most of us, he’s made missteps that he simply can’t take back.
For those readers who are looking for a novel that contains big reveals and stunning, life changing revelations which re-shape the protagonist’s world view, you should probably steer clear of Wolf In White Van. Sean does not change, he does not become a better person as his story ruminatively unwinds. (The only change Sean experiences is considering reconstructive surgery at his at-home nurse’s suggestion) However, if you enjoy dark, tender stories told in a distinctive, lyrical voice, Wolf In White Van will be a wholly satisfying experience.