Tidings from the Crew – wolf in white van (John Darnielle)

Ahoy there mateys!  Though the first mate and I have very different reading tastes, occasionally we do recommend books to each other.  Books the first mate introduced to me included xom-b, holes, and the perks of being a wallflower.  He and I both read the following:

wolf in white van (John Darnielle)

We were talking about the book and I enjoyed his viewpoint so I ordered asked him to write a review.  So you get one from me and a bonus additional review from me crew.  Please note that I write like I talk and the first mate writes like he thinks.  Hope you enjoy!

From the First Mate:

A  professor of mine once opined that while anyone can start a poem, it takes a poet to finish one. Many years later, after having read several novels written by poets, I’ve come to the opinion that the literary skill set that allows a poet to craft stunning poems typically doesn’t translate to prose.  Most often you get Gregory Corso’s The American Express: poetic inclinations smashing headlong into the requirements of story.  But sometimes, just sometimes, you get poetry in your prose; mystical words skittering just along the edge of story requirements.

Like most, I know of John Darnielle from his work with (as?) The Mountain Goats.  The “about the author” section of Wolf in White Van states “he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation,” and I’d have to agree with that assessment.  Much as I consider Bob Dylan a poet (an easier position to hold now more than ever), I’ve long considered Darnielle a poet, and a damn good one at that.

Central to the story of Wolf in White Van is an accident that our narrator, Sean, just barely survived when he was in high school and which has left him permanently disfigured and on disability insurance.  While recovering from the accident, Sean develops a post-apocalyptic role-playing game that later supplements his income and allows him to live a modest and reclusive lifestyle.  We’re told that the name of the game, Trace Italian, comes from a style of medieval fortifications, trace italienne, in which there are “triangular defensive barricades branching out around all sides of a fort: stars within stars within stars, visible from space, one layer of protection in front of another for miles.” And, to be honest, such a description is quite apt for the structure of the novel itself.

Darnielle protects the core of his story, Sean’s accident, with layers of other story fragments.  We learn about the progress of several of the players of Trace Italian and some horrific fallout thereof.  We learn about Sean’s love of Conan tales and his fantasies that spring from it.  We learn about Sean’s recovery from his accident and some of what his life was like before it.  All of it told fragmentally and non-chronologically.  Typically we’re told of how something ends before learning of how it begins. And each fragment, of course, builds on the one that lays next to it.  But we are never given reasons for events. The why of what we’re told is almost always hidden from view.

While reading Wolf in White Van, I found it felt very similar to Haruki Murakami’s very early work Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, as all three novels have a poetic, dreamlike manner to them in which the story drifts from fragmented moment to fragmented moment.  I tend to like such novels, but I can certainly understand where others would find the work frustrating; I’m fairly certain the Captain would hate it. I will certainly be reading Darnielle’s next novel when it comes out.

From the Captain:

I was forewarned.  Got to 18%.  Hated it.  Should’ve listened.

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