Though not explicitly billed as a mystery or a thriller, Wolf in White Van moves at an impressive pace with a large helping of suspense. This is author/songwriter John Darnielle’s first novel, which follows the fairly pedestrian life of narrator Sean as he slowly unveils the twists and edges of his childhood leading up to the mysterious incident that changed his life and physical appearance forever.
Intertwined with this series of disorganized flashbacks is a second plotline, this time focused on Sean’s long-distance relationship with a teenaged couple who play the game Sean designed while recovering from the incident. The game—Trace Italian—is played through the mail in the same way as a choose-your-own-adventure novel, and the reader is periodically given a scenario from the game. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that anyone who reads Wolf in White Van will immediately be captured by the structure and plotline of Trace Italian and, as I did, wish furtively that they could immediately subscribe.
The brilliance of Wolf in White Van lies in its structure and narrative style. The language is usually quite casual, sounding as if Sean were in the room telling his life story, but is occasionally contrasted by beautifully poetic and abstract lines. Structurally, the novel kept me thinking. Nothing happens in logical order, and important details are delivered without any particular warning. I felt responsible for piecing together the fragments of Sean’s life, and I was proud of myself when I guessed correctly. Having said that, Wolf in White Van still has reread value: I’d like to start back at the beginning to pick up on any clues I might have missed.
Sean as a character is not unlike Holden Caulfield in that he spends much of the novel telling the story of his young adulthood and admitting to all the confusion and unanswered questions. But Sean is edgier than Holden; something in him strikes a slightly darker note, seducing as well as repelling, drawing in while simultaneously pushing away. I want to be Sean’s best friend as much as I want to run in the opposite direction. I admire his genius, but I’m afraid of it, too. Being allowed inside Sean’s head for the course of the novel, both in terms of his thoughts and ethics as well as his creativity, was a privilege.
So what about the title, you ask. How do you come up with a novel entitled Wolf in White Van? This is my favourite mystery the novel proposes. And you’ll have to read it to figure it out.