Reading Wolf in White Van casually will provide the reader with an interesting story of a troubled young man, but will rob one of the more complex and creative aspects of the novel. It is a short book with a nonlinear structure so I think one needs to pay close attention or miss out on what John Darnielle is really saying. This is not one of those fun little beach books. Wolf in White Van demands and deserves thought. The story begins with a wonderful, heartfelt hook that only vaguely hints at an awful event that has permanently disfigured Sean Phillips, the young narrator. By the end of the first chapter, I was invested in Sean’s personal story and felt compelled to dig deeper and learn more about the event he calls an accident that has so dramatically altered the course of his life.
During the post-accident hospital stay, Sean conceives of a game-by-mail wherein a player’s goal is to safely traverse a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape to reach the safety of the Trace Italian, a star-shaped fortress located on the Kansas plains. Sean mails players an envelope containing a short narrative describing their surroundings and their options and players will respond by mail, dictating their actions taken and choices made. Originally, the chapters about the game seemed like a distraction from what I felt was the real story and for a long while, these chapters frustrated me. I wanted to know more about Sean’s accident, the cause and effect. Still pondering the book weeks later, I realize the chapters about the game, indeed the game itself and thus the novel, are about choice and how each choice we make has a consequence.
We all know this at a surface level, but how often do we truly consider the choices we make? Wolf in White Van begs the reader to pay attention to each decision point in our lives. Since finishing Wolf in White Van, I have been hyperaware of the recent choices I have made, often tracing those decision points back several steps to see how I arrived at the point where I had to make that decision. It is a fascinating exercise, but one that could potentially drive a person mad. For your consideration: If you don’t brush your teeth, you will develop a cavity and you will have to go to the dentist to get the cavity filled. On the way home from the dentist, you decide to floor it through a yellow light, but you don’t make it and collide with cross traffic. Had you made the decision to brush properly, you might not have developed that cavity and would not have had a dentist appointment that day, meaning you likely would not have been at that street intersection at that time and thus would not have been forced to react to the yellow light or try to get through it and would not have been involved in the car accident. Consider then the branching effect of each of your decisions and how other lives are affected by them.
Had Sean made different decisions than the ones he made leading up to his disfiguring accident, he would not have ended up in the hospital and would not have created the game. Had he not created the game, the two teens that took the game too far and ended up involved in their own tragic event would not have been placed in the situation in which they found themselves.
The title of the novel comes from a childhood memory Sean recalls about watching a talk show on television. The guest panel discussed the alleged satanic messages heard when some music albums are played backward. On one such record, the guests swore they could hear the phrase “wolf in white van”. None of them knew what it meant, but were certain the message was sinister in nature. This scene seemed like a throwaway to me, but upon further contemplation, I realized that the novel was also being presented backward with Sean retroactively revealing the details of his accident with the final scene being the event itself. I feel like I might be reading too much into this, though, because for the life of me I cannot discern any meaning in structuring the novel this way. Concluding the novel with the climax is certainly powerful and grim, but is the backward structure of the novel as meaningless as the backward messages on the records, intended to incite baseless and stumbling prattle much like that of the talk show’s guest panel? I feel like I have either been duped into putting unnecessary thought into something or I have entirely missed one of Darnielle’s points. Or am I getting Darnielle’s joke without realizing it?
Throughout Wolf in White Van’s 207 pages, the exact nature of Sean’s horrible accident is slowly revealed with a new tantalizing and horrific detail provided with each new anecdote of his life, each of which is presented with brutal and familiar honesty. It is these sections that drove me toward Wolf in White Van’s stunning conclusion. I use the word “stunning” not as a convenient adjective, but in the literal sense. Upon reading the final sentence, I realized I had stop breathing. I inhaled a great gasp of air and let my body collapse backward, slapping my head on the wall behind my bed. I stared into nothingness for a good long while, thinking, sympathizing, and empathizing. Since then, Wolf in White Van has stayed with me.