Wolf in White Van
Wolf in White Van
John Darnielle
Granta Books, 2014

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Scott Dill

When the Wolf Comes Home

John Darnielle's fierce sobriety.

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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.

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