Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle is a thought-provoking novel that explores the nature of reality, the power of imagination, and the devastating consequences of loneliness. I thought the novel was beautifully written and Darnielle's prose is incredibly readable, relatable, evocative, and in a way, slightly haunting.
The novel centers around the character named Sean Phillips, a young man who creates and runs a mail-based role-playing game called "Trace Italian." Sean's game is a world of his own creation, a place where he can escape the limitations of his physical reality and live out his fantasies.
The novel is told through his perspective and moves between his present and past, building up to a climactic event that left Sean permanently disfigured and forever changed. It is during his period of recovery and rehabilitation that he creates, refines and finally produces his game for those to discover, subscribe to and participate in. Sean, being shaped by his past and (until towards the end of the novel, his mostly undescribed) traumatic event, is compelling, caring and sympathetic, albeit an incredibly lonely individual. His disfigurement and physical appearance has made it difficult for him to connect with or relate to others, and his game provides a space where he can explore his own desires without fear of rejection or judgment. Sean's voice is particularly relatable, and Darnielle manages to capture the protagonist's unique perspective in a way that is both empathetic and affecting.
On one level, Wolf in White Van (named due to a 'back-masking' phrase allegedly heard in the Larry Norman song "Six, Sixty, Six") is an allegory on the nature of reality and the power of imagination. His game ends up being a source of solace for the players who participate, providing a space where they can explore their own dreams and desires. I particularly liked the intersection of these characters lives with Sean's life and how it explores the concept of peoples vibrant imaginations; how they can use it for fantastical creation vs how it can lead to the somewhat inevitable destruction of self if left unchecked in reality. It shines a light on the similarities of us all when we spend time in our heads.
At its core, I think Wolf in White Van is a novel about loneliness and the ways in which isolation can dictate your life choices and paths and is a testament to the power of connection and the ways in which human beings need each other to survive.
Scott Johnston (Windsor Chapter)