James Vance and Raymond Belknap spent Dec. 23, 1985 drinking and smoking pot, and then went to a church playground in Reno, NV, with a 12-gauge shotgun. Near the merry-go-round, 18-year-old Belknap put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself. The 20-year-old Vance did the same thing with the same gun, but survived — tremendously disfigured, his face incompletely rebuilt after multiple surgeries.
Vance and Belknap’s families sought reasons for their sons’ actions. In the absence of satisfying answers, in the vacuum of meaning, they latched onto an absurd idea: that subliminal, backwards messages encoded in the Judas Priest album “Stained Class” urged listeners, including their sons, to “do it” — kill themselves.
The face of James Vance and the power of hidden messages reverberate throughout Wolf in White Van, the powerful novel by Mountain Goats songwriter and guitarist John Darnielle. Wolf in White Van chronicles the life of 40-something Sean Phillips. Beginning as a lonely and bullied kid, Sean spends days and years immersed in rich worlds spun from his imagination, elaborate fantasies of his own power (his favorite: himself as Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero Conan), and enthusiasms for hard rock and fantasy/science fiction novels. Capping one of his happiest days, 17-year-old Sean commits the act that defines his life: he shoots himself with his father’s hunting rifle. Failing to kill himself, Sean’s face is a hideous ruin, so disturbing that he becomes a reclusive adult, the only person who regularly sees him — excluding even his parents — a home-care nurse.
During Sean’s hospital stay following what he calls his “accident,” months consumed with reconstructive surgeries, physical therapy, and sessions with mental health workers, he finds hope in his fantasies. Literally unable to do anything other than stare at the blandly institutional ceiling above his bed, Sean creates a world that he invests with meaning and purpose. He soon transforms that world into a play-by-mail role-playing game called “Trace Italian.”
“Trace Italian” confronts players with the kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland young Sean loved and forces them to fend for themselves. Their goal: Reaching the Trace Italian, a heavily fortified outpost of humanity on the Kansas plains, blocked by thousands of miles, radiation sickness, marauding mutants, endless choices, and Sean himself. “Trace Italian” becomes Sean’s job. Players subscribe for a few dollars a month. In return, Sean sends them a typed description of their surroundings and options and, when they send their next move, he replies with the corresponding outcome. Virtually his only interactions with people are facilitated by a world created in his traumatized teenage imagination.
Like Vance and Belknap’s parents, Sean’s believe that some dark influence (a suicide pact with a girl) or external force (the malignity of heavy metal) caused his suicide attempt, but they never land on a conclusion. By the time Sean is an adult, telling his story, his parents seem to have given up wondering. Neither does Sean wonder, but for different reasons. He sees no meaning in the shooting itself — thinking of it as “a place where no lessons were” — but he does seem to have some ideas, ideas he never quite gives voice to, about what motivated him.
Early in the novel, Sean describes his young self as having “grown receptive to dark dreams.” Receptive, of course, meaning interested in, excited by, but in a more literal way, receptive also suggests a device able to tune in invisible signals hurtling through the air. There are ideas and notions in Wolf in White Van, currents and influences, as essential as oxygen, as deadly as methane — all equally invisible. As the allusions to and hints of these unseen forces accrue, the novel takes on the uneasy, possibly supernatural tone of Shirley Jackson. Sean’s story may be a tragedy befalling a kid unable to cope with the world he finds himself in; it may also be about a man beset by forces he can intuit, but can’t resist. In this way, Sean calls to mind the equally vulnerable Nell, the main character of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Though never directly saying he was influenced by outside forces — “distant stations,” in the lyrics of a Mountain Goats song about perceiving secret connections where there may not be any — Sean behaves in a way that suggests he’s not merely receptive to dark dreams, but that he may also be a dangerously good broadcaster. “I try to be careful about the things I think,” he says.
This is especially true of how he administers “Trace Italian.” He insists on not engaging too personally with his customers, and with good reason: in the two times he’s broken that rule, two instances in which the game may have served as a conduit for something more powerful than correspondence, strange or terrible things have happened.
Darnielle never allows the reader to arrive at a firm conclusion about what’s occurring. This isn’t a hackneyed genre novel in which a writer’s creations come to life and wreak havoc on the world. Neither is it a coming of age novel — it’s not about how things were hard but, with time, got better. It is about life being hard, getting much worse, and then living with the practically unthinkable. Wolf in White Van is a tragedy.
Darnielle layers invisible causation, or mechanisms of denial, or signs of an unstable personality, into the narrative with enviable subtlety. So ephemeral are some of the possibly supernatural incidents that they only reveal themselves upon subsequent readings. That Darnielle has accomplished these effects in just his second novel — his prior short novel, tackling Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality from the perspective of a disaffected, institutionalized teenager, was part of the 33 1/3 series of books on classic albums — is an impressive achievement.
Your Twisting Alleyways
Wolf in White Van’s dust jacket depicts a maze. In Sean’s game, the Trace Italian rests at the heart of a maze, but the image also suggests the challenges connecting with other people pose for Sean. Not 40-year-old Sean, but the 17-year-old who dreamed up the structure, the small-for-his-age pre-teen Sean who envisioned himself as a bloodthirsty barbarian king while playing in his grandparents’ backyard.
Communication is a gulf between people in Wolf in White Van. After the shooting, Sean’s parents often start talking to him only to find their words dying off mid-sentence, unsure of how, maybe unable, to continue. Sean’s closest (only?) friend in middle school sometimes doesn’t say a word to him at lunch. Even Satan, according to the televangelists that Sean watches night after summer night, has to use backwards-encoded song lyrics. “Why didn’t he just get his message out directly, by speaking clearly . . . the devil’s process . . . sounded like a lot of hard work for almost no gain,” thinks teenage Sean.
Surely there are easier ways to reach people? Maybe there aren’t. Maybe communicating with other people is just as hard for Sean and “Trace Italian” isn’t just a way to make money and have fun, but also a way to achieve real connections with other people, a challenge to discover people worthy of that connection.
“Dance Music,” one of Darnielle’s most-loved songs, which feels like the template for Sean’s pre-shooting day, suggests that difficulty in connecting:
“I follow you down your twisting alleyways
find a few cul de sacs of my own.”
When we think of Sean’s imaginary fort, when we consider the labyrinthine complexity of human relationships, it’s not hard to imagine who resides at the Trace’s unreachable core, monstrous.
Perhaps Darnielle’s greatest gift as a lyricist is the deep empathy he bestows on his characters, reporting back on their inner lives and their perspectives on the outside world. It’s a talent that allows his audience to slip easily into identifying with or rooting for his characters. That empathy makes the final pages of Wolf in White Van gruelingly painful.
Ultimately, the interpretation of the novel that sees subtle, supernatural hands driving Sean’s suicide attempt may arise from the same impulse as his parents’ grasping at answers. Perhaps after 200 empathetic pages in Sean’s mind, it’s too horrible to believe that there truly is no reason for the act, so unfulfilling that explanations have to be invented. If that’s the case, if Darnielle succeeds in making the reader care about Sean the same way his parents do, inducing the same wild speculation, then Wolf in White Van is something like “Trace Italian,” a powerful conduit for emotional connection with readers.