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Wolf in White Van

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Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move. Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, 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, roleplaying 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, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.

Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.

211 pages, Hardcover

First published September 16, 2014

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About the author

John Darnielle

8 books2,411 followers
John Darnielle (/dɑrˈniːl/, born March 16, 1967) is an American musician, best known as the primary (and often solitary) member of the American band the Mountain Goats, for which he is the writer, composer, guitarist, pianist and vocalist.

Source: Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,192 reviews
Profile Image for Drew.
1,569 reviews506 followers
December 19, 2014
I sat for 20 minutes after finishing the novel, staring out at the East River, and thinking. The complexity at work here made me want to start it up again - but I didn't want to ruin the moment, as it were. It's the sort of book that both demands a second go and insists that you leave it alone. It is frustrating, in some ways. It is beautiful in all the ways. And what seems at first like something altogether simple becomes, quite quickly, so much more than that. It is a gift, really: this novel allows you, for a brief moment, to truly escape from the confines of your life and look down on it as some sort of omnipotent outsider might. A kind of transcendence.

I can't wait for all of you to read it.

More at RB: http://ragingbiblioholism.com/2014/06...
Profile Image for Jessica.
584 reviews23 followers
September 20, 2014
John Darnielle's band, The Mountain Goats, is one of my favorite bands, and I wanted this to be a five-star book so badly. The writing is solid, and the book is structurally and conceptually interesting, but the whole thing just didn't come together for me in a particularly satisfying way.

The title Wolf in White Van is a reference to backmasking in rock records, specifically the evangelical Christian scaremongering that if you played seemingly benign records backwards you'd hear all kinds of Satanic messages. The book is structured in a way that turns that concept on its head - read front to back, the book starts in the present and moves slowly back in time toward a very grim final scene, but taken chronologically from the last chapter to the first the book grows increasingly more positive and "ends" on a note of overwhelming joy. What I'm not sure about, though, is whether we are reading the backmasked version of a "normal" novel - the strange, stuttering, dark sounds hidden behind the everyday - or whether Darnielle is asking us to take his novel and play it backwards to find the joy hidden behind the suffering. I guess it's meant to be some of both.

The story is very similar to Darnielle's novella Master of Reality in that the main character of each is a metal-loving social misfit who we know has been hospitalized for some deep psychological issues, but we largely see the positive human side of the character and only gloss over the history that landed each in his present situation. However, while this worked well in Master of Reality's shorter format, it felt shallow in Wolf in White Van, where you have the length of an entire novel to contend with a narrator who is deliberately telling you only part of the story, sketching things out just enough to give you an idea of what happened without really letting you get very far inside his head.

Sean, the narrator of Wolf in White Van, spent many years telling himself stories about an invented post-apocalyptic fantasy world, and after being released from the hospital he decides to turn this world into a role-playing game called Trace Italian which is played through the postal mail. Participants all start with the same initial story and series of choices, mail in their turn and are rewarded with a page or two of descriptions about the next chapter in their story and another set of choices about what they could do next - a sprawling, slowed-down Choose Your Own Adventure played out over months or years, specifically designed so the player will explore forever without ever reaching the end.

As the book progresses we learn about some of the people who play Trace Italian - in spite of having never met them, Sean obviously feels very close to them and thinks about them often. We know that a team of two players began taking the game far too seriously, resulting in the death of one and serious physical harm to the other, but even though Sean must have learned quite a lot about them in the ensuing legal battle one of the more frustrating parts of the book for me is that we don't get as much of Lance and Carrie's story as I would have liked. The whole idea of Trace Italian is fascinating and one of the strongest parts of the book, and I wish we could have spent more time learning about that world and the players who were drawn to it - especially to understand what was so compelling about this story that two teenagers decided to risk their lives trying to turn it into a real-world quest.

There are so many things about Wolf in White Van that are really good, and a lot of clever things going on in the book, but by the time I reached the end - the darkest scene in the book, though also not the surprise it's set up to be since you pretty well know what's going to happen from all the references to it along the way - I was mostly just glad it was over. The book covers a lot of surface, but didn't give me the depth I wanted. As a concept it's fantastic, but it wasn't the five-star book I was hoping for.
Profile Image for Jonathan Ashleigh.
Author 1 book119 followers
November 20, 2016
I was pulled into this book immediately. The main character, an interesting and not-so-lovable outcast, runs a fantasy play-through-the-mail game and the reader is left to wonder wether or not he intentionally shot himself in the face years earlier. This was one of those books that seems to know what is going on in your life when you read it; at least it was for me. If you liked Wolf in White Van, I think you would love The Sorrows of Young Mike.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Stephen M.
137 reviews605 followers
October 3, 2014
This is the kind of book that shouldn't have an ending.

Really, the author should have created a subscription service where you mail him a posted envelope, and he sends you the next chapter. The avid readers will get their "bottomless" fill of the book and it won't have to stop. Not officially. You won't have to let your eyes linger over the final words thinking, this is it, is it? And you feel a sick loneliness and you miss a person you've never met and that doesn't even exist.

The novel features a hideous character -- externally, that is. In real life, if I stumbled upon him, I would've averted my eyes and tried not to stare, but by not-staring, I would just as well have been staring. I would have denied him his identity, treated him less like a human and more like a freak, an unpleasant smell, a flattened skunk on the road that I have to tolerate, and pretend that I don't notice. And that's all the more gutting: that I can feel so damn much for this character through his words, knowing full well that in real life, I would have cowered.

"I had come through the day no worse off than I had come to it, which, as I had been telling myself for many years now, is a victory whether it feels like one or not."

What I certainly wouldn't have understood is that simply walking into a crowd is an act of heroism. To subject oneself to the gawking faces of the crowd and to make oneself a freakshow while just trying to get to the store takes a kind of bravery that I will never know. I may end up doing brave things with my life and I may do things that take courage, but nothing like that; it's an entirely different kind.

"This was Steve's exact phrase, 'More normal' . . . 'It's freakier before you see it up close.' It's like tire tread. It's like a shag rug. It's like rope burn scars. It's like a badly paved road. It's like bent wheel spokes pressed into taffy. I told him the truth, that I didn't know. That I didn't know anymore if I wanted to be 'more normal' or not. I had stopped being normal so early that it was hard to imagine being any other way than how I was."

It seems insane that we would want someone to be normal when they clearly are not, and when they clearly have no choice in what's arbitrarily dictated as normal. It's strange and beneath you and you would never be that knuckle-dragging backwards bigot until you live it, and you feel it in your gut when you see him, and you realize that you're a part of the problem -- while at the same time, you suffer at its behalf. You are both the perpetrator and victim to the hatred of deviance. And the more the story's told the more it breaks your heart because of this fact.

Thankfully, you don't have to confront this hypocrisy when you only have his words and your mind can invent a much more palatable image of his face. You won't have to confront it until they adapt it into a movie, and they cast someone far too attractive for the role.

But read this book, if only for the hurt that soaks every page and for Darnielle's cynical observations of life, that are too beautiful to be someone's debut novel. It won't take long, because this book is far too short, and, like a great story should, leaves you wanting more.

Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,137 reviews8,152 followers
December 30, 2016
First read: May 3, 2015
Second read: December 28-30, 2016

Updated review:
I can't think of another time where I actually liked a book less the second time reading it. That's not to say that I still don't enjoy this book, but when I read it for the first time I gave it 5 stars. It blew me away, and I still cherish that reading experience. But after having re-read the book, I am not nearly as enthralled by it as I remember. I have a few theories as to why. The first time I read it all in one sitting, and it's definitely a powerful novel that you can lose yourself in. I was hooked from the first page and sat on my bed for a couple of hours completely surrendered to Darnielle's storytelling. This time, I read it over the course of a few days, here or there, while on vacation. I didn't lose myself in it as much, and so it's power, it's immersive nature, didn't capture me as strongly. I also think this is one of those books that, once you've read it, can never be viewed the same again. So much of it's joy is in the discovery, the first time around. It's also possible that in the last year and a half, my tastes have changed. Though, I'm less convinced by that argument since there were still moments in this that I really loved, and I do think Darnielle is amazing at capturing feelings in unique turns of phrases. So maybe it's not a 5 star read anymore, but it's one I would still recommend to people for it's originality and great writing. 3.5 stars

Original review:
A while back on Twitter, I saw an author--I can't recall exactly who it was--describe how he had his friend purchase a book, at the friend's recommendation, on his Kindle for him. He then had the friend open the book to the first page so that he, the author, could start reading with absolutely no context of what it was he was even reading.

I wish I could do that for someone with this book.

It's essentially what I did myself. I had heard this book mentioned briefly by someone and requested from the library, but hadn't managed to get around to it. Finally, tonight I sat down with the intention of starting it, wanting something fresh to clear my head, and was hooked from the first page. As cliché as that sounds, for this book, it couldn't be truer. Something about the writing was evocative and mystifying, drawing me in sentence by sentence until I finished in one sitting.

I don't want to give any plot description. I honestly don't even want people to read the blurb on Goodreads or the back of the book before reading this. I'm not saying that because I think the description will ruin some sort of mysterious aspect of the story. It won't. I just think this book warrants untainted eyes going into it. It's puzzling, raw, emotional, and brilliant. It's a book about grief and personal pain and guilt and coping with all of that. It's a heavy book, but a deeply moving story. It's gripping and quotable and deliciously sinister.

It's a book that completely took me by surprise. And it's easily one of my favorites I've read in 2015.

I'm so happy to have had this experience with this book. Because that's what reading this book was for me: an experience. Not a slow trudge through murky waters, but a high speed chase down a Southern California highway where you're news reporter, the camera crew filming from the police helicopter, a pedestrian waiting at the crosswalk, and the burglar in the getaway car all at once.
Profile Image for Kinga.
476 reviews2,200 followers
February 28, 2015
It’s the sort of book you read in three hours and then think about it for ten.

It’s an elliptical novel which, while going back in time, circles closer and closer to the original incident that set the whole thing in motion, the incident in which Sean, the narrator, lost his face (literally). His new condition of looking like a one person freak show has him practically house-bound, so he invents other worlds and sets his mail-subscription role playing games there. Sean is not the sort of guy who was very popular before. When his mother worries he would be lonely after he leaves the hospital, he says: “I was going to be lonely anyway.”

The whole thing is about choices, like in Trace Italian, Sean’s game. You ‘choose your own adventure’. But the choice is an illusion. You take all these turns, but you can never really lose, and you can never really win – that’s the way the whole thing is designed, to keep you playing. The most daring think you can do is to opt out and leave the game altogether, like Chris, the guy who quit on his own terms. Most of the time we don’t know why we do the things we do, the choices we make follow some unexplained impulses and we struggle to provide a coherent explanation to back up our decision making. Sometimes we decide the best thing to do would be to dig a hole and stay in it, and when we realise it was a mistake it’s too late and we’re too weak to crawl out. This happened in this book too. We don’t know why we do what we do at the time, let alone later. Our old selves are a mystery to us. We keep the memories but the hero of those memories is a stranger to us.

The phrase 'Wolf in White Van' comes from the supposed subliminal messages hidden in rock and metal songs. You know, if you play them backward, Satan will speak to you. This is also what this novel does with its back to front structure. So what is the hidden message here? Is there any? Or am I just hearing things because I decided I would hear them? Maybe the supposed message is just accidental or maybe it can be only understood by a chosen few. The narrator asks why the devil can’t speak clearly, why he hides and obscures his message, which seems rather counter-productive from the marketing point of view. Similar complaints were voiced by some reviewers who just wanted the book to speak to them clearly and explain everything in capital letters. Ha ha. That’s not how the devil talks. Or John Darnielle.

I would’ve probably given this book five stars if I was one of those sad, misunderstood teenagers. But I wasn’t. I did spend a lot of time alone but was perfectly content to get on with my strange projects. And I never felt there was something that needed understanding. Maybe I was just blessed with the right kind of parents but my diary was full of cringe-inducing entries in which I described how happy I was and how perfect the world was. I miss being that person. It wasn’t until I was 25 when a whole zoo moved into my head.
Profile Image for Leah.
1,052 reviews58 followers
December 18, 2014
Upon finishing Wolf in White Van, I spent a good hour reading reviews - what were they seeing that I couldn't? That was back in August. Now, weeks later, I've gone back and looked at those reviews again, the glowing praise, the life-changing commentary. Still I'm not getting it and that more than anything is what frustrates me. Even when I don't like a book I can still see the other side, understand just what its fans find so appealing. That's not the case here. Wolf in White Van is barely over 200 pages that still managed to take a few days to read. I hate to say it, but I think I'll be sticking with Darnielle's songs, rather than any upcoming novels. I will say though, that the cover is simply stunning. The title is a metallic foil and when the sun hits it just so...gorgeous.

For the full review and more, head over to The Pretty Good Gatsby!
Profile Image for Maciek.
562 reviews3,321 followers
October 3, 2014
Wolf in White Van has received excellent advance reviews, and now has been longlisted for the National Book Award. I knew nothing about the book and its author before picking it up - I only read it because of the title and the NBA nomination. The latter is a particular surprise, considering that it's a debut novel and that the author is more widely known for being a musician and leading an indie band.

The book introduces Sean Philips, who at the age of 17 suffered a serious accident - one which has left him permanently disfigured,and turned him into a recluse who has retreated into the world of fantasy. But during his recovery Sean has invented a role-playing game which he called Trace Italian, which became his source of income. Trace Italian is an RPG which is played through snail mail, and where players journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Each player picks a move from the list of options and sends it to Sean, who in turn develops the story for them and sends a letter back with new moves to choose. Everything is going fine until two high school students from Florida, Lance and Corinne, turn the game into real-life, and Sean is called to personally account for it.

I can't help but scratch my head at all the good ratings - I found the book to be tremendously boring and only finished it out of obligation (its short length also helped). But then what I did expect from a book about a mail version of Dungeons and Dragons? It's never specifically stated when the book is set - or at least I didn't notice it - but such game could be popular somewhere in the 19th century, before the invention of the internet. But still, there's little if any reason for anyone to engage in a snail-mail version of D&D - the whole fun of such games is based on getting together in a group and forming a party - with each person playing a unique character - and a seasoned gamemaster leading everyone through the adventure, in real time. There's a number of games which can be played in this way - such as chess, or strategic games requiring lots of planning - but I'd argue that an epic quest isn't one.

Still, I would like to learn more about the game - why was it successful? What distinguished it from other attempts at the same thing? But the game is only the background for the story, with the obvious focus put on Sean - and his ruminations on various topics: how art affects life, the relationship between the real and the imagined. Sadly, I never grew to like or even care about Sean and his thoughts didn't give me anything new to think about. The nature of his accident is also purposefully never entirely explained, and the reader is never given much insight into Sean's character; and the novel's non-linear structure jumps between the past and the present, forcing the reader to put the pieces together - which didn't help as I couldn't become interested in these pieces in the first place, and in the end couldn't care about what happened at all.

I'm puzzled by all the great reviews and the nomination for a prestigious award - obviously the book did something for other readers, but it ended up doing absolutely nothing for me.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,054 followers
September 20, 2014
Forever is a question you start asking when you look at the ceiling. It becomes a word you hear in the same way that people who associate sound with color might hear a flat sky-blue.

In the answerless nightlight of his grandmother's ghostly tv he has a too late static awakening. Nightly hauntings of something coming over him from outside or is it inside in speechless answers. He's condemned to a life of never meeting his eyes. People hide behind rehearsal time smiles. The real world. Sean blew his face off and the look back is ghastly joker smile to his parents. I can't really imagine the holes in his cheeks. I wait for the film scare like in Pirates of the Caribbean and get the sad knowledge of granted actions forbidden to him. No answers, no bridges and too late. Before the "accident" and the is it inside or outside savior of his mind. Slide back to before. Saving is a crawl and inexplicable happiness welling up. I feel like the saving is the same feeling as when he was dying. The happiness is as the great unknown any why could be.

I have had this feeling that crawling out of the hole you dig for yourself is too hard to not stop before you're all the way out. I call it "wanting to feel like the real me" with a back burn I can't shake off that another reason exists of feeling close to the whys. Why would you do that terrible self destructive thing? I don't know. I couldn't tell you. No meeting of eyes. The real you does the savior thing that just means you didn't feel any of it was worth it. I think Sean would say something amazing about not turning to the path to get the hell out. Stay around and find out what all of the shadows on the wall look like. What could you scare yourself into thinking they look like when the lights are going out. The real world doors of insurance papers and (thank god) waking up to not being welcome at home anymore. So he lives through the obliteration of old Sean. He can't exist ever again. He's buried in stone cold I wish it had never happened and I can't imagine that it never did grief. He would have to kill who he is now to do it. Why did he try to do it before? He doesn't know and I believe him. The in-between Sean has to do the reality. So he invents his first game the Trace Italian. One of those mysterious fantasy magazine write-in ads you might glance at. Maybe like a fantasy cover of a book you never get around to reading but you are reminded of it. If you ever tried to recreate a favorite story and probably badly ripped something off but you could trick yourself into a fever of your creation. I did that forever. I'll like the stupidest stuff if it reminds me of the crap I sustained myself with because I get that feeling back. When Sean says that the Trace Italian is where people like him could be safe I felt included. I wanted to write in and make choose your adventure moves and wait for the mail to get the next turn. The kind of heroism you can only believe in by your own grace. The kind you can't promise yourself you'll have. I didn't wonder that someday, maybe now, no one plays Trace Italian anymore. The real world returns and another way to pay the bills will have to be found. These were his only sort of graced friends, these players. Two kids have their power from invisible sources. Her parents blame Sean and Trace Italian. The game made them take it too seriously. It was proof in their paths. What made them not know that Kansas nights can be so cold? In his letter read to Carrie's parents in trial Sean cannot leave out that their move was the correct one. Their pull in his ghosts is undeniable in another player, Chris, who quits on his own terms. I wanted to stay where he was when he gave up not being able to sleep at night because he could see the bodies in the trace. Sean could see their moves. Whenever he's back then or now, whichever is which of the real world or letting go. I cannot help wanting both. To be the Sean that had to have the Trace, a companion he calls Marco and grafted out of those magic where did they come from impressions. It's all true. They cannot come from just you and it's a horrifying feeling of being both alone and never alone to know it. Of course no one could have made Sean make a monster out of himself. There may as well be a time lock like out of Doctor Who. You can't return to when you did it and know yourself. What he can do is make wordless soul movements that stop before they can end when those kids could have made him their unexplainable. It felt so real me in the before, the since, the after and the yawning future the way it traces that is it you or is it the world where does it come from. This book is so perfect I can't stand it. I wish that I was still reading Wolf in White Van. I could see in my mind's eye that I can't always get out of the way leaning on it in dark impulses. Warm ones, too. I kind of wish that I was all of them and I'd be able to step outside and reach the future and the end.

I thought about the guy in the truck, the focus in his expression, and I felt like I already knew enough of the story to tell it to somebody else maybe better than either of its major players could.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews35 followers
June 20, 2016
I first learned of this book a couple of years ago in Austin, Texas. It was a highlighted
book - front center -at "Book People".....the wonderful famous bookstore.
Standing next to another customer he told me how much he loved the book and had read it twice. The more the guy talked - I was sure it wasn't a book for me. ( not bring much into games...but I enjoyed the strangers excitement anyway)

Later I remember seeing the book begin to pop up on Goodreads... with varied ratings.
I don't remember paying too much attention to lots of reviews. ( I might have read a couple)....but if I had ....
I couldn't remember what this book was about when I downloaded the audiobook.
It was available from my library - on a day I was out for a long walk....

What a surprise! The audiobook pulls you in immediately. This is another example where the VOICE NARRATION was so hypnotic...that somehow, I can't imagine reading the physical book to be better.

Right away we know there was some type of awful accident - we are curious --
WHAT type of accident? Why is this person coming in and out of hospitals? - being carried by his father? An adult? A child?
We are HOOKED ....
The unfolding of the narration keeps us on our toes...we don't want to miss a thing...
I even started to want to know about this game ...AND I AM NOT A GAME PLAYER...but it's creative - and actually really engaging.
I cared about Sean Philips....( you can't help but love this guy)
It's a powerful story-and damn.... another book very hard to stop thinking about.


Thank you to the new world of audiobook's.. I gave it a try....and am glad I did!!!

Profile Image for Tony.
212 reviews2 followers
August 30, 2014
I found myself frustrated by this. It was one of these really interesting reads that I was rooting for. You know, it had all kinds of promise early on, but ultimately left me cold. The story itself is a fascinating dreamlike inner portrait of a damaged kid. Darnielle's structure plays with time, putting things in reverse order for the most part. And there's a defining incident at the end, but there's no drama to it because it's referred to so much earlier that we know what it is. And that must be intentional. He obviously didn't want a shocking twist ending. I guess my problem is that after reading the book I don't know what the author's intention was.
Profile Image for Imogen.
Author 6 books1,282 followers
September 22, 2014
[I heard that someone (definitely not me) pirated an electronic version of this beautifully melancholy thing, blew through it in a day, and liked it so much she immediately went out and bought it in hardcover.]
Profile Image for Marc Kozak.
253 reviews66 followers
August 31, 2022
I'm driving from Chicago to St. Louis, falling southward on a six-hour stretch of a lonely highway, seeing nothing that leaves any lasting impression on the flat trip through countless fields that lead back to my hometown. I pass a slow moving truck, and then quickly weave around another vehicle that loiters absentmindedly in the fast lane. My mind activates, and I'm somewhere else. I'm the favorite to win a nationally televised, championship race in a make-believe sporting league of competitive recreational driving. I speed up to squeeze between a SUV and an oncoming truck, and the announcers breathlessly communicate it to a worldwide audience of enraptured onlookers. "Kozak again showing his artistry, as he applies just the right amount of speed to pull that maneuver off." "You're absolutely right Jim, he stays just under the legally acceptable speed limit, preventing the 20 second penalty. He's on pace for a record time." My turn angles are precise; I use my turn signal to prevent further time runoffs; I grip the steering wheel tightly and can see the line I need to take as it plots out in my mind 100 yards ahead. I am one of the best there is at this sport. I am in total control.

I am looking at the clock and am surprised that hours have passed and that I'm almost home already.

I'm sitting on the couch, staring at the piano in the corner of my apartment. Tumbleweeds of dust gather around the floor underneath it, the keys are dirty and cold. It seems a lifetime ago when I practiced daily for hours, mastering the masters, realizing a potential that was limitless. My mind stands up. I play for an hour, laughing to myself as I stretch my out-of-shape wrists and fingers. I do the same the next day, and begin to get frustrated at a book of speed exercises; at the top of the page, my old piano teacher had written the date that I'd previously completed the exercise -- 1996. Almost 20 years ago. I get angry, and play them again and again, for hours on end, until I can do it with my eyes closed. I sleep so well that night. I begin to think of rhythms, notes, melodies while at work, my mind struggling to contain this new, exciting influx of ideas. I stay up all night, not even noticing the sun coming up, and finish recoding a rough track of an original song. Eventually I save enough money to rent some studio space, and record a short album. Thinking nothing of it, I post it on my social websites, and feel pride as my friends exclaim their surprise and approval. The songs get shared, and I'm encouraged to play some shows, which eventually builds a following of people who would pay money to see me play. I smile and shake my head in bewilderment as I tell my boss I have to quit, and that I know it's not a smart move to go on the road as a 30+ year old musician, but it's something I've wanted to do my entire life.

The credits begin to roll, and I am surprised that the movie I was watching is now over. I stand up to get some water, and sit back down to see what's on next.

I'm reading on the train on the way to work on a characterless Tuesday morning. It's grey and dark both outside and on the faces of the other passengers. At the next stop, the door opens and an indescribably beautiful woman enters, her eyes pointed down and mannerisms betraying a reluctance to start the day, but still with an aura of warmth and energy. My mind lights up. We get off at the same stop, she says thank you as I hold a door open for her, and we inexplicably start talking. It's clear how much we have in common; how we genuinely laugh at each others easy jokes; how we smile at each other with our eyes. She finally says, "well I work over here," with that terrifying ellipses at the end of her words. I take a chance and just manage to avoid tripping over my words enough to ask if she would like to go out some time. Against all odds, against all belief, she accepts. Our first meetings are coy, then captivating, finally carefree. All cynicism is washed away, and the question of whether I would ever find love, finally, after starting to really believe it would never happen again, is answered with a resounding yes. Our wedding is small and surrounded with friends who have wanted nothing more than this for me, for us, forever. Our children make us proud, and we live out our lives in comfort and clarity. The words on the tombstone over our shared grave slowly blur over time.

The words on the page in the book I'm holding have blurred; I've been staring at them without reading. I look up and am surprised that I'm almost to my stop. The woman is gone -- she must've gotten off at an earlier stop, and I never see her again.


This is a book for people who create universes in their head to escape the one they're living in. It is written in a beautiful, almost poetic language, and is very sad. The synopsis may sound silly -- with talk of role-playing games and such nerdery -- but it is a very poignant study of someone who is living with a deformity, hiding in isolation, escaping reality the only way he can think of. There is a plot, and a kind of mystery, and an ending that could prove frustrating if you are the type of person who needs closure. But the beauty of this book is in how Darnielle creates a compelling argument for escape, while simultaneously showing the danger of what it can bring.

This was a complete, unexpected, delightful surprise.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,484 reviews29.4k followers
October 2, 2014
John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van is quirky and cool, tremendously creative and a little bewildering. How's that for a reading experience?

When Sean Phillips was 17 he suffered a disfiguring injury that left him near death. Even years later, people still stop and stare at him when they see him, and he lives an isolated life, practically estranged from his parents, and apart from periodic errands, he sees only his doctors and a visiting nurse who helps care for him.

While Sean was recovering in the hospital, he invented a role-playing game called Trace Italian, which leads people through a dystopian world full of violence, danger, and risk. Played through the mail, Trace Italian and several other games Sean invented have allowed him to live independently and exercise his creativity. But when two teenagers, Lance and Carrie, get a little too involved in the game and bring it into reality, Sean is forced to account for his game, and examine if he in any way encouraged their actions.

As he reflects upon Lance and Carrie's decisions, Sean also examines his life, and how he got to this point. He explores the impact his injury has had on his everyday existence and his relationships with his family and friends, and tries to determine what his future holds.

I'm not sure why, but I guess I was expecting a book along the lines of Ernest Cline's fantastic Ready Player One—a first-hand look inside of a role-playing game and how it affected both those who play and the creator. But while Wolf in White Van does touch on Trace Italian periodically, this is a far more introspective, brooding study of a deeply flawed and troubled yet sympathetic character.

I thought John Darnielle told a great story, and I really liked Sean's character. I just found that the book left me with more questions than answers. I was hoping for more of an understanding of why Sean did what he did (I'm being purposely oblique so as not to spoil the way the book unfolds), and also wished that the book had gone a little more in depth into his interactions with Lance and Carrie.

This is a book that requires a little patience because it takes a while for the story to take hold of you, but it's worth it. While I think people will have different interpretations of the events in the book, there will be little doubt that Darnielle is a great writer, and I look forward to seeing where his career goes from here.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,738 reviews14.1k followers
October 28, 2014
I applaud the author for the original concept of this book as well as the outstanding prose. After a disfiguring injury Sean, who now must live in his mind creates a game by mail called Trace Italian. He is able to make a modest living from this game, which is endangered by the unfortunate fate of two of the players. Despite physical and mental despair, with this he finds something to live for, something in which he is engaged. A place he escape to when his stress level is high.

I wish I could have connected more with this story and with Sean as well. There is much about music, old movies and other cultural references which, maybe because I am not a gamer, I could not relate.
The book is structured so that the ending is basically told first and the present told last. There are many references along the way so that the ending, which is really the beginning, is not a shock.

Profile Image for Julia Rose.
7 reviews26 followers
July 21, 2014
Amazing. One of the best books of 2014. 207 mesmerizing pages that I read in 3 sittings. I have never read anything like this. Big ideas that don’t shout. At once gentle and brutal, Wolf in White Van tells a story about a teenager—a fantasy lover, a gamer, sort of a loner—who approaches the edge of inner darkness and keeps going. Here is Sean’s reflection, as an adult who runs a post-apocalyptic role playing game through snail-mail, on imagination and why we hurt ourselves—and what that means, if anything. We all create an imaginary world to cope with living in this one; how far is too far, too deep in fantasy? I marveled at Darnielle’s creation of a completely authentic, multidimensional narrator, struggling as we all do with the evil and confusion that rumbles up inside us when we contemplate our mortality and power. Sean leads us through a sometimes perplexing, shadowy path with unexpected empathy and spirit. Darnielle’s craft is inimitable.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
630 reviews381 followers
August 16, 2017
Have you ever wondered how much credence you put into the fictional worlds that your favourite fictional characters inhabit? What if a fictional world was the only thing left to help you cope with extreme trauma? Perhaps a gross simplification, but Wolf in White Van poses these questions through the actions and thoughts of its narrator, Sean Phillips. Told in non-chronological order, "Wolf in White Van" is told entirely from the perspective of Sean who's face is severely disfigured through events that become more clear throughout the novel. Sean operates an old-school pen-and-paper survival game that forms the bulk of his life following the accident. To say much more would be spoiling what is a really original and interesting read that is best unveiled on its own merits.

Despite its short length (~200 pages), the novel feels much more dense due to the rapid staccato of the chapters which move forwards and backwards in time, like peeling off the layers of an onion from both inside and out. The result is a really quite challenging, though highly enjoyable, reading experience. I kept trying to piece together what the purpose of the story was, trying to parse out hidden meaning, trying to understand Sean and the decisions he makes. Again, without spoiling too much, Sean's narratorial voice keeps the book afloat during sections that could have dragged on without his wit and insight. As a reader, Sean's story is compelling precisely because he holds little back from the audience. You are forced to immerse yourself in Sean's psyche to try and puzzle out what exactly this story is all about. The cover (which has to be one of the coolest covers in recent memory), suggests the maze of the book you are about to enter. Indeed, I found myself wondering more than a few times how the novel would resolve in a meaningful way and whether or not I'd be able to figure out what was going on. This may make it sound like a frustrating read (at times it is), but I think it will also lend itself to many re-reads in the future. While I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, Wolf in White Van is a unique reading experience that should pique the interest of any seasoned reader.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,617 reviews429 followers
December 1, 2021
-Trabajo especial, con sus altibajos, pero bastante especial de todas formas.-

Género. Novela.

Lo que nos cuenta. El libro Lobo en la camioneta blanca (publicación original: Wolf in White Van, 2014) nos presenta a Sean Philips, desfigurado en extremo por alguna clase de incidente que sufrió a los diecisiete años. Durante su larga estancia en el hospital pensó en un mundo posapocalíptico en el que dejaba volar su imaginación y, cuando recibió el alta médica, vivió de los cheques del seguro y de los modestos ingresos que generó el juego por correo Ciudadela italiana, que transcurre en el trasfondo posapocalíptico en el que tanto tiempo gastó.

¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

Profile Image for Kevin.
Author 33 books35.4k followers
October 19, 2014
A little confused by the overall reading experience with this one. I was pretty engaged all the way but ultimately felt like all the parts, all the shifting dark moods and small subplots, are not explored as deeply as I wanted them to be. A lot of great scenes but they still felt unmoored at the end.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews322 followers
October 2, 2014

My knee-jerk reaction would be to slap one star on Wolf in White Van, move on and be done with it. I just could not see the point author John Darnielle (brainchild/frontman of alt-folk stars the Mountain Goats) was making with this novel. It made me angry. It left me confused and depressed. It gave precious few clues why protagonist Sean, debilitated by a "disfiguring injury" at age 17 (and loses himself in creating fantasy role playing games) does what he does, thinks what he thinks. I suppose this was Darnielle's intention, but I can't applaud the effort.

I suppose, though, there's some value to use this novel as a jumping off point for discussions on why some adolescents (or adults, for that matter) are so emotionally/morally bankrupt that they see no repercussions in acting out in destructive ways. Other than that, though, I just can't fathom any other reason to read this.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
August 12, 2016
This novel has a unique premise and voice, and I really enjoyed reading it. I just wish I had read it in a group because there is a lot to discuss after finishing. I felt I knew more when I started then when it was over, and I've been listening to the author's band ever since and I just don't know where I am anymore.

Profile Image for Jo Ann .
316 reviews102 followers
May 14, 2015
I did finish it, but quite a few times I considered quitting. Only the fact that it was on the short side gave me motivation to continue.

First off the blurb is very misleading. I was under the impression I would be reading something scifi, on the order of Ready Player One, nope, not even close.

Secondly the whole story is basically inside one characters head. I'm a reader who doesn't enjoy stories that are heavy on introspection. Especially when the character has too much self over analyzing of every thought and feeling. It gets really boring, really quick.

Three, what exactly was the point to all of this? There really was no plot line. Just a story told in reverse about a man who shot his face off when he was a kid, and created a Dungeons and Dragons type game called Trace Italian played by snail mail. We are told about a couple of teens who took the game to seriously and caused themselves harm. The parents tried to bring a lawsuit against Sean the creator and it was dropped as almost as quickly as it was brought up. Just a dead end that went no where.

More and more pages of inner thoughts. I have little patience for this stream of consciousness style of writing.

Then we finally get to the moment of the shooting and that doesn't make any sense either. There just wasn't any justification in it. He gave no real reason for it. Just glad it's over.
Profile Image for David.
Author 18 books336 followers
December 11, 2015
Wolf in White Van refers to the cryptic phrases supposedly revealed by listening to records backwards, which those of us old enough to get all the pop culture references in this book will recall was one of the big moral panics incited by Christian evangelicals back in the 80s. In one of many scenes described by the first-person narrator, Sean, in this non-linear novel, he actually calls one of those evangelical stations, as a child, during their "prayer hour," to ask about this phenomena.

Of course, the astute reader will also realize that it's a clever reference to the book itself, since it starts at the end and unravels back to the beginning of what eventually lead Sean to the trial with which the book begins.

Sean created a play-by-mail game called Trace Italian, in which the players journey across a post-apocalyptic America searching for a mysterious location called Trace Italian. They send in their moves, and Sean selects a few boilerplate paragraphs from his files, customizes them a bit, and sends them back. It might seem very strange if you never played one of these games. I did play a lot of PBM games back in the 80s and 90s. They were a lot of fun. The Internet mostly killed the industry, of course (the more savvy PBM companies moved to email and web-based gaming), but as Sean tells us, even though he expected the Internet to kill his game as well, he retains a loyal following even into the 21st century, still sending in moves by old-fashioned snail mail. This makes Trace Italian a sort of cult phenomenon, which fits with the events in the book, in which Sean, mostly confined to a secluded existence thanks to a horrible disfigurement, briefly touches the lives of his players and gets glimpses, and more often, speculations, about their diverse outside lives, through the handful of sentences they exchange every couple of weeks in the medium of the game. It gives the entire book the same mysterious, opaque feeling as the game described within the book, in which it's never quite known what is going on, but everyone is drawn in trying to put the pieces together.

In the beginning, we learn that two teenage players of Sean's game tried to play it in real life, apparently convinced that the game was giving them clues to things they could find in the real world. This ended in a sad and tragic fashion, and the parents of one of the teens blamed Sean and sued him.

From there, we go backwards. We know initially only that Sean is terribly disfigured - his voice is difficult to understand, his face makes people look away. Eventually we learn how he became disfigured, but the details, the hows and whys and circumstances, are parceled out bit by bit as Sean continues moving back and forth, from his present existence as the creator of a strange little postal game that gives him a meager supplement to his income, to the events that caused teenaged Sean to become a lonely, disabled monster, events which are echoed in the lawsuit back in his present.

This is an odd, interesting, and clever book, and I'd like to have liked it more. I got all the references - the Conan novels, the science fiction magazines, the PBM games, the Moral Majority and their hysteria about Satanic messages in rock music - and I do appreciate clever and different novels.

But I'm not that impressed by "ambiguous" novels. I don't need everything spelled out for me - I am okay with the author leaving some questions unanswered. But in the end, I still had no understanding of what troubled Sean, what caused him to do what he did, what he was besides an angsty kid with a difficult relationship with his parents. Maybe that is all the author intended me to understand, and he built this short novel about a troubled kid on layers of self-referential narrative devices and cultural easter eggs to be unearthed like the mysteries in Trace Italian. It was an ambitious effort that didn't quite land for me, so I can only give it 3.5 stars, which I will round up to 4 because I'd probably try reading something by John Darnielle again.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,770 reviews4,248 followers
February 26, 2017
I had to take a bit of time to mull over this before writing about it. For one thing, I discovered after finishing it that the protagonist is at least partly based on a real person, and therefore the story isn't as wonderfully original as I had been assuming. (My original opening paragraph for this review was going to be about the magic of fiction that makes you think, wonderingly, where the hell did they get this idea from, how can anyone be this imaginative, not because it diverges wildly from reality, i.e. SFF or horror, but precisely because it does align with the world familiar to you and yet you can't begin to understand how someone could just conjure it up out of thin air.) For another thing, the ending really pulled the rug out from under me. One of my early notes on Wolf in White Van read 'imagination is a refuge'; I felt an intimate connection with the protagonist and the interior world he exists within. I felt strangely and delightfully cosy in the certainty that imagination is a refuge. Yet the ending seems a rebuke to all that, a slap in the face and a telling-off for readers who've seen themselves in Sean. Imagination is dangerous, it seems to say; imagination is a deadly drug.

I knew next to nothing about the book when I started it, and I'll pre-emptively answer the obvious question by saying now that my familiarity with the Mountain Goats extends to the fact that I've heard of them. As in: I know that's the name of a band. That's it.

Anyway, Wolf in White Van is about Sean Phillips, whose face is terribly disfigured in an accident when he's a teenager. During his recovery, he has dreams about a stranger leading him into an 'eerie desert landscape'. He develops the vision into a scorched-planet scenario in which the remaining humans must search for shelter, and when he's out of hospital, he turns this idea into a game called Trace Italian. It's a by-mail RPG, a thing I had no idea existed until I read this. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, if, instead of turning to page xx when you made a choice, you had to send off a letter, and get the next page in the post a week later.

There are lots of digressions and little subplots. Lots of bits of Sean's past and his present, pulling together like scattered iron filings to a magnet. The story is told in reverse (albeit very loosely), working back to the day of Sean's injury, so the ending can't be called a twist, and yet when the pivotal moment finally comes, it is still shocking.

I felt so close to Sean. I felt like he was someone I knew – no, closer than that, I felt like in some way I was him. Over the years I've occasionally alluded to this particular thing that can happen in novels, and I've seen lots of other people talk about it too – there really should be some German portmanteau term for it – that thing where a fictional character articulates things you have fleetingly thought or felt but never told anyone, and it's as though they've been right inside your head. I don't mean 'secrets', just things you would never even think of giving voice to. Parts of your individual interiority that you might naively assume are unique. Sean is one of those characters. Darnielle has a certain way of phrasing things that makes you think yes, that's exactly it, which I suppose is not so surprising for a lyricist.

I don't really have any conclusion to draw about this book. I really liked it; it gave me lots to think about. I definitely want to read more from Darnielle.

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Profile Image for Matt.
374 reviews18 followers
June 11, 2014
I am loathe to write too much about Wolf in White Van. As much as any book I can recall, it's something I don't want to spoil in any fashion for potential readers. It's a stunner...a gem...a cosmic gut-punch.

And “spoiling” John Darnielle's* debut novel in any traditional sense isn't really possible. I would argue that while the “how-and-why” details of the story comprise the central narrative questions, the point of the book is the impossibility of answering them in any objective way. Like life itself, you will have to take in and account for the minutiae, the ephemera, the seemingly meaningless details to even start to grapple with the idea of “why”.

A search for meaning and a desire for things to make sense are human instincts: find the inflection points, separate the genuine from the simulacra, label the “telling” moments. They also are components of a reader's expectation when picking up a book. But, in the end, the meaning of any moment, event or entire life is only a wholly subjective construct of an individual, limited and shaped by his/her experiences and choices (or, more often, mindlessly inherited from others)...a “dark smudge of an idea shared among believers,” as Darnielle's narrator describes the idea of Satanic messages purportedly encoded backwards into some music.

An exploration of finding meaning in others' actions is worthy, profound, fertile ground for a writer. The genius of what Darnielle achieves, however, is to have the central construct of the plot, the book's narrative style, the narrator's personal details and even the physical act of reading a book harmonize, reflect and amplify each other**. If this sounds complicated, meta and/or naval-gazing, it's only due to my failure to effectively communicate Darnielle's feat. Wolf in White Van is deceptively simple, elegantly designed and plainly and powerfully written.

Upon finishing the final, devastating page, I spent the next half hour re-reading key portions of the book. I've returned to it several times since. The further away I get from completing the narrative, the more this book unpacks itself in my mind, revealing new layers and concepts, undiscovered feats and treasures. Wolf in White Van is stunning.

*I'm compelled to mention that Darnielle is the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, a band I've only vaguely heard of and have never actually heard
**There is undoubtedly an apt musical metaphor to be used here. I'm not the guy to come up with it
Profile Image for Kevin.
336 reviews38 followers
October 25, 2014
I finished this days ago and haven't been able to figure out what I wanted to write as a review and now it's been too long, so I'm just gonna wing it:

Up until maybe the final 20 pages of this rather short book I was convinced that I was going to finish it, flip back to the first page, and read it again. I felt like there was this big swirling mass that was about to congeal and I wanted to go back and watch it all over again, see the tendrils creeping closer to the center, use my newly-acquired knowledge of the end to be able to see their trajectory long before it was truly apparent.

and then I got to the end of the book and the whole thing deflated and it didn't do anything I wanted it to do, or even anything I thought it might be doing, and I just kind of closed it and set it down and went on with my day.

Somehow the story that Darnielle was telling was not the story I thought he was telling, and everything that I found fascinating about the main character was ... I don't know, discarded? thrown away? in the last few chapters, and looking back it's not that I feel (pleasantly) tricked, like when Palahniuk or Christopher Priest pulls the rug out from under their readers - I just feel like ... I don't know, like Darnielle didn't even know what the story was, or how to end it.

But who am I to tell a person how to write their own book, right? Which just means I didn't Get It and now I feel like a Philistine but

but let me be snarky for a second. I finished, and as I was closing the book I saw the author's portrait on the inside flap of the dust jacket, and I read:

"John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and son."

and thought to myself, "That is one of the most incredibly pretentious things I have ever read" and it made me feel better about not liking the end of the book.
Profile Image for ✨Susan✨.
900 reviews175 followers
May 12, 2016
Don't waist your time. What a bunch of derelict characters. I thought maybe at some point this book would make a point. Not...just a group of selfish backward people.
Profile Image for Jeff.
12 reviews
October 16, 2014
I wish that novels came with a warning label, or rather an indicator of the level of seriousness the reader should expect. I say this because just reading the summary of "Wolf" led me to believe this novel would be about an outcast who found solace in the things that outcasts usually do. Gaming, music, etc... And those themes are present and important here. But this book, this book . . . rare is the book that makes me want to immediately re-read it. I say that because I feel like I glossed over the first half, not giving it the respect it deserved. It wasn't until I read the following that I realized what the author was really getting at.

To set the scene, Sean's mother is worried about him entering a care home as he is finally able to leave the hospital, saying "I worry that you'll be lonely." Sean replies, “I was going to be lonely anyway.”

I don't want to spoil the plot of the novel, but for Sean to say that, almost brushing off what happened to him, was a very powerful moment for me. From the outside, we expect the disfigurement to be the horrible part, but to Sean, he was already disfigured. He already felt like he was an outsider. What would it matter if he did what he did? He'd never fit in anyways. And the question of why. I know I want the world to make sense, for actions to have causes, for emotions to have causes. Sean's parents certianly did. But what if things don't have to be the result of anything? What if "I don't know" really is the answer to why we are who we are? That Emily never asked Sean "why" was also a very powerful moment in the novel.

To me, this is the type of book you'd want your best friends to read, to then discuss with. People you trust. People you can have serious conversations with.
Profile Image for Jessica Sullivan.
519 reviews428 followers
February 26, 2017
I'm pretty sure there are plenty of things to like about this book but it just did not work for me. Clearly I'm in the minority, considering the critical acclaim it received—including a nomination for the National Book Award.

Darnielle places us in the mind of Sean Phillips, a severely disfigured man who has dedicated his life post-accident to creating an intricate role-playing game that's played through the mail. The non-linear narrative focuses primarily on two storylines: 1) the background of what happened to Sean and 2) a couple of teenagers who take his game too literally and reach a tragic end.

There's certainly a lot of interesting commentary in here about escapism and loneliness, about the choices we make in life and how people cope with extreme trauma. Darnielle's writing is clever and thought-provoking.

All along I felt as if I should have found it compelling, but I just didn't. I enjoyed some of the parts about Sean's disfigurement and the aftermath of that, but I was completely bored by anything involving the game. (Admittedly I've always had a bit of an aversion to fantasy and gaming, so that could be part of the reason why.)

This is the kind of book that is deliberately obscure and demands reflection. I enjoy books like that, but in this case I just couldn't find the energy to give it the level of thought that other readers have. I'm sure I'm missing a lot, but I sort of just wanted to get it over with.

Profile Image for Taylor.
301 reviews116 followers
January 18, 2016
3.5/5 stars

I'm torn on this one.

I really liked its quirky attributes, but I can't say that I enjoyed it in the same way I would enjoy most stories. Because it isn't most stories.

I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn't feel like there was much insight into their emotions or the reasoning behind their actions. At first, the dense and slightly jarring writing style caught me off guard, but once I got used to it I was able to appreciate the strength in John Darnielle's cerebral language.

At the outset, the world-building was minimal, but as the story progresses, we're exposed more and more to the bizarre and enthralling world inside the protagonist's mind, oftentimes delving into the fictional wasteland of the Trace Italian. The premise of this mail-in decision-making/strategy game was incredibly unique.

There wasn't much in the way of plot, but I think that was the point. The structure and timeline of the story were definitely odd, in a good way. It skipped back and forth, overall moving backward in time toward a pivotal moment in the protagonist's life. It was interesting to explore the effect one action has, causing a ricochet of change on not just one life, but on all others it catches.

This is not a light read by any means, but if you're looking for a story that will make you think, you might want to pick this one up.
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