Wolf in White Van – A hard, sharp thing

by benkloester

Wolf in White Van Cover

Knowing what I now know of Wolf in White Van, I can say that this is not the kind of book I would normally choose to read.

It shares that property with another book I found brilliant, but struggled with: DFW’s Infinite Jest. To me they are alike not so much in terms of themes or style (though one could easily find similarities, they somehow don’t feel important to me), but in the discomfort they instil whilst still managing to charm the reader, to provoke a deep response. The writing is very good. The process is often unpleasant, but worthwhile. The result, or conclusion, is unsatisfying, or missing altogether.

Wolf in White Van is a hard, sharp thing. It is sad. But beyond all that, in the hardness of its stories, it did not allow me to learn any lessons, draw any conclusions, find any answers. Perhaps this is the point – perhaps there is a lesson – that suicide is an intractable thing; trying to find sense or reason, some shape or intent behind it, some dark plan or motive, is simply to give shape to shadows, to ascribe reason where none can be found.

I lost a friend earlier this year, one of those people that figure as the brightest of stars in the loose constellation we keep around ourselves, but who, like a star, was usually experienced only from afar (at least by me), and oft idealized into a simple, beautiful thing instead of the ball of fiery chaos a star truly is. Perhaps because of this distance, when he took his own life in January, none of us had had any inkling that anything was amiss, and it came as an incredible shock to our community. It may have been this, or some other sadness in my life, or only of the book itself, and what it said, that led me to break down into sobbing, body-wracking fits of tears minutes after finishing this book, as I wrote these first few sentences. I don’t know which it was, but it is true that it drove home the fact that I will never understand that death, that choice, and that probably all such deaths are senseless, a puzzle none of us can ever solve and can only become lost ourselves trying.

But despite my painful reaction to it, there is a lot of beauty in this book. Anyone that has listened to the Mountain Goats knows that John has a knack for combining words to create images that can be jarring in their beauty. Or ugliness. Or harshness, as the case may be. His words invoke a visceral response, with much variation in its nature – it can be like a punch in the guts, or a freezing cold touch, or a dying embrace. Many times I found myself with goosebumps climbing up my arms simply at the use of imagery, and despite my mind’s revolting at the overall narrative. But ultimately I prefer this talent applied to his songs, where the doses are smaller and more manageable, and where there is more room for me to fill in the gaps myself, as I please.

This story is filled out by its author from either side, moving inwards, focus gradually narrowing in time until we arrive at the moment that comes to define its central character, Sean. Details are added, as we move forward and backwards in time like two trucks on a highway playing a long game of chicken, inexorably heading for collision: what will be both the original and terminal event. Yet for all we learn along the journey, we cannot piece together anything from the wreckage, or make sense of the casualties collected along the way.

The world that Sean creates for himself, and ultimately shares with others – the Trace Italian, provides as much of our window into his story, and the players wrapped up in it, as does his recollections of the two tragic events that will forever alter his life and his work. In the Trace Italian Sean finds refuge, and solace, from the harder things of existence, and his players seem to find the same escape and freedom in his game that he found creating it. Until, through choice or mishap, they don’t.

I don’t now whether I would recommend Wolf in White Van. I love John Darnielle’s music, and I now respect his writing, but I typically read fiction for escapism, or to experience something singular that can’t exist outside the pages of a novel. What you will find in Wolf in White Van is a sad story that could be taken from a fairly average, if marred by all-too-common tragedy, US middle-class life. But it is a sad story with moments of hope, and of enchanting simplicity, and of incredible beauty, and finally, of contemplation of something else, something deeper, that we don’t have a name for but which leads us down the unseen path linking anguish and contentment.