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Wolf in White Van
Wolf in White Van

Granta Books

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Scott Dill

When the Wolf Comes Home

John Darnielle's fierce sobriety.

John Darnielle opens his new novel, Wolf in White Van, with a description of a father carrying his son to bed. This child, however, isn't exactly cradled in his arms. Following a devastating disfigurement, 17-year-old Sean Phillips cannot walk. His father hoists Sean up over his back, resting Sean's torso on his shoulders, and slowly shuffles toward the bedroom. Carefully turning at the door so that they can both fit through, he eases Sean pain-prone body down onto the bed. Then, "Dad squeezes my hand like I remember him doing when I was very small. We look at each other. Teamwork." It's a typically gentle scene in this tender novel about working through a life-altering trauma.

Anyone familiar with the work of Darnielle's band the Mountain Goats will recognize the emotion of that handholding moment as characteristic of Darnielle's songwriting, and yet its confident, paternal solicitude is something new in his work. Darnielle has spoken to interviewers about his childhood experiences with an abusive stepfather. Much of the band's 2005 album, The Sunset Tree, chronicles that relationship and how music became Darnielle's source of refuge. In "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?" Darnielle sings of having incurred his night-shift working stepfather's wrath by waking him in the afternoon. He's in his bedroom with the headphones on when "you blaze down the hall,"

… and I'm guarding my face,
hoping you don't break my stereo.
because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without
and so I think about that and then I sorta black out
held under these smothering waves
by your strong and thick veined hand,
but one of these days I'm going to wriggle up on dry land.

The goofy title, the wry but poignant hopefulness, the deliberately deflated "so I think about that," the dreadful space separating those helpless young hands guarding his face from the "strong and thick veined hand" coming down—these are all hallmarks of how Darnielle's songs imagine the pain people can wreak on their closest family and friends. Yet Sean Phillips' opening memory of his 17-year-old self is different.

We don't yet know what's wrong with Sean or what has happened to him, just that his father must carry his weak and injured body to bed. Sean says it's a "cluster memory," since his father "did it every day, for a long time, from my first day back until what seemed like a hundred years later." Part of the memory is "a small bookcase with a painting above it, a western scene," which they passed on the way to his room. Here again, as in "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?," fatherhood is juxtaposed with an aesthetic experience. The novel's difference from the song, however, is that where the music gave comfort, attention to the image unsettles.

If you look harder, or happen to turn your head at the right moment as you pass, you see figures, human figures, on what you might otherwise take for an empty ridge. It's like an optical illusion, this hunting party on the near hill, their curving hats dark in the orange dusk: they come out of hiding if you look at the empty scenery long enough … . They never lost their power to surprise just by being there, a little smoke rising from somewhere within their three-strong party, their brushstroke rifles resting lightly on their shoulders.

The reader eventually discovers that Sean's disfigurement is due to his father's hunting rifle, stored in a closet nearby. These surprising little figures have uncanny powers of suggestion. In Darnielle's fictional worlds, the arts usually provide a sense of shelter from the unpredictability of other people; yet here this painting secretly harbors violence whereas the real, live father consoles. The switch reveals the novel's conflicted uncertainty about its own carefully crafted musings on the innocent shelter that the arts can provide.

Wolf in White Van begins its narrative in the present and works backwards, telling the story of how Sean came to create the game Trace Italian, and why he found himself defending it in court one day. After his "accident"—we get intimations that he shot himself in the face, but we don't find out how or why until the last page—Sean gives himself entirely to constructing the imaginary world of his new game. "I'd gotten the name from dry days in history class during a lesson on medieval fortifications," Sean explains.

The trace italienne involved 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. The World Book preferred the term star fort, which I also liked, but in idly guess-working trace italienne into English I'd stumbled across a phrase that had, for me, an autohypnotic effect. Trace Italian.

The image of a star-shaped place of impregnable refuge stuck. Those early days in the hospital, Sean recalled the phrase and had an image of "people running for shelter across a scorched planet" and "Trace Italian represented shelter, and it was shaped like a star. That was all I had."

What's most curious about this game in which people seek shelter is the fact that it was played through the mail. Sean would mail players a scene with different scenarios to choose from and then they would mail back their move, often with explanations for their thinking behind the decision. Each move led down different paths to other moves, with several more options to choose from—a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure by mail. Though his "clients" paid to play the game, Sean felt something direct and personal in this mode of mail-in play. "Every move I send out begins with the same word," the lonely Sean relates with gratification, "You."

For two of his players, however, this innocent escape turns into something lethal. Lance and Carrie, two troubled teenagers from Florida, go off in search of the Trace Italian. In the game it exists somewhere in Kansas and the two make it to the actual state of Kansas and end up freezing. Carrie dies; a frostbitten Lance lives, but barely. Carrie's parents then come after Sean with a lawsuit, blaming him for their daughter's tragic death.

The plot is partially inspired by a similar lawsuit brought against the heavy metal band Judas Priest in 1990. James Vance and Raymond Belknap's parents alleged that subliminal messages in Judas Priest's music caused the boys to make a suicide pact and shoot themselves. Belknap died instantly from the gunshot, but Vance lived with a severely disfigured face before he died of alcoholism and health complications three years later. Both Sean and Lance have something of Vance's story in them.

The heated debates this incident occasioned about heavy metal and its successor genres have long intrigued Darnielle. The Mountain Goats' "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" tells the story of Cyrus and Jeff, two disaffected teenagers whose rebellious friendship turns to anger when Cyrus's parents send him away for treatment. The song showcases the narrative arc Darnielle's short songs can cover, but his first foray into narrative fiction, the novella Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, is his most sustained tribute to heavy metal (a style quite far from the acoustic Mountain Goats). Roger Painter, perhaps another incarnation of Cyrus, keeps a diary during his time in the psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt and uses it as an apologia for his music. In epistolary form, Roger tries to explain why he loves the Black Sabbath album so much and why it doesn't cause his destructive behavior but helps save him from it. Roger is at pains to point out the album's surprisingly evangelistic message, that "Ozzy was one of you guys! He was on your side the whole time, but you wouldn't even listen to him to find out!" Darnielle's experiences as a psychiatric nurse undoubtedly inform his portrayal of Sean no less than they did Roger, and Wolf in White Van pushes his engagement with this uncomfortable music even further.

In the new novel, the refuge heavy metal offered Sean is no longer really there. Sean no longer listens to his tapes from the Eighties. In part because, well, many of them are atrocious; but that doesn't stop most of us from cherishing the music of our youth. Sean simply doesn't need them anymore. He recalls the special messages he thought they contained for him, the special feeling of revelation they promised, with mild wonder.

In particular he remembers being spellbound one night by a Christian television show he happened to come across. The guests are warning against the devil's use of subliminal messages contained in secular music—especially when played backwards. They play a song backwards for the audience to hear. "Wolf in white van," it garbles out. The title's metaphor falls almost too neatly into place: Wolf in White Van is itself a garbled message, rousing in the reader that intense pleasure Sean felt in the coded theatrics of his music, or that Lance and Carrie felt in playing Trace Italian.

One character in the novel, however, is not dependent on these addictive forms of escape. Chris Haynes, himself a puzzle the reader must wait to understand, is Trace Italian's most committed and most creatively engaged player. One day, though, he suddenly quits. Most players just fizzle out, taking longer between moves and eventually going silent. Chris, however, needs to tell Sean why he quit. One morning he woke up thinking about the game too intensely, as if it were real. "I don't think I can play anymore," he writes to Sean. "It's not like I think anything's going to happen, I'm fine, and I don't actually have anything better to do, and it doesn't take up too TOO much of my time? But it's in my head now and I don't want it anymore so I'm going free-play here." As Sean deals with the court appearance and his confused feelings over what happened to Lance and Carrie, he keeps returning to Chris's sober self-control. Chris appreciated the game more than anyone else, but he came to realize its powers weren't entirely imaginary and he respected himself enough to respect the game.

The truth is that Wolf in White Van's Borgesian puzzles are not its real achievement. To the contrary, it's the wisdom that Sean learns from people like Chris that pulses throughout the story. When his father asks him not to come to his own grandmother's funeral so that his horrifyingly reconstructed face won't distract the others there, Sean is at first furious, but he quickly forgives his dad. It "isn't really much of a mystery," Sean confesses, "this occasional need I have to comfort my father. I did something terrible to his son once." The admission is not merely an exemplary form of empathy. It reveals Sean's ability to understand something inside himself that isn't Sean, but that might be more powerful than Sean. Darnielle is a close reader of the Bible (see The Life of the World to Come album for some vivid examples); Paul's letters—particularly the passages delineating the irrationally self-destructive self and the promise that its sinfulness will one day be fully known and forgiven—permeate his writing.

The letter to the Romans was, after all, written to a city raised by wolves. Those wolves have symbolic significance for Darnielle. The Sunset Tree's "Up the Wolves" begins with a reminder of how hard it is to get over some feelings of guilt or anger:

There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet
No matter where you live.
There'll always be a few things, maybe several things
That you're going to find really difficult to forgive.

The song goes on to imagine various forms of vengeance that might ameliorate those feelings. How good it will feel to get even. The chorus, however, turns to a curious allusion to the myth of Remus and Romulus that captures Darnielle's profound ambivalence toward the succor of the bestial:

Our mother has been absent
Ever since we founded Rome,
But there's going to be a party
When the wolf comes home.

What has a greater role in Rome's founding myth: that the she-wolf saves and suckles the twins, or that she leaves? For Sean Phillips, the wolf can both save and destroy. He's a reminder that no art form in and of itself can offer salvation any more than it can be the sole cause of horrible violence.

Scott Dill is a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University.

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