Wolf in White Van is a disturbing character study of Sean, a teenager who invents a role playing game that almost destroys him and the people who play it. But it's also about how gaming is a form of salvation. There's a dark ambiguity at the heart of this mystery, making it one of the most intense reads of the year.
This is the first novel from singer/songwriter John Darnielle, creator of The Mountain Goats, and in some ways Wolf in White Van reads like one of his mournful songs about teenagers whose lives have been torn apart. But it would be more accurate to say that this novel captures the feeling of listening to The Mountain Goats: it's surreal, emotionally explosive, and often weirdly funny in ways you wouldn't expect.
When we first meet Sean, he seems to be atoning for something — or maybe for the lack of something. We know that his face is horribly disfigured, and that most of his contact with the world comes from home health workers who tend him. Trying to avoid people, he lives quietly at home, watching the world through his windows. But he has one other connection to humanity, through a post-apocalyptic role playing game he invented as a teenager.
The game is called Trace Italian, a reference to star forts called trace italiennes, and it's played through the mail. Every time a player wants to make a move, they describe it to Sean in a letter and he sends them a description of what happens next. Most of his answers are pre-written, but he often adds personal touches to reflect the personalities of his players. He's made enough money on the game to live modestly, and despite the rise of the internet he's still able to attract new players to what amounts to the world's slowest text-based adventure game.
Though Sean tries not to get emotionally involved with the players, he develops certain preferences over the years. He loves the people who give themselves completely to the fantasy, pulling in references to their own lives, blurring the boundaries between the game and reality. For the most part, players of Trace Italian content themselves with figuring out how to navigate the American wasteland to safety in the game's eponymous fortress. But this harrowing journey is also an escape hatch, allowing them to flee the horror and boredom of their lives. The escape that Sean offers them is a kind of redemption, but it's also an intense danger.
As we wade deeper into Sean's murky past, we discover that he's been embroiled in a long, painful lawsuit with the parents of two teenagers who went too deep into Trace Italian. And we begin to guess that these teens' ecstatic/horrific U-turn into their own imaginations is an echo of whatever happened to Sean.
What's breathtaking about this novel is that Darnielle never takes the easy way out. He celebrates the transformative powers of shared storytelling, but is acutely aware of its pitfalls. The question that pulls us through Sean's story is always about when fantasy has gone too far, or when it does too good a job luring out the violence that lives inside our minds (or even, maybe, our souls). This isn't just a novel about gaming, or even pop culture, though there are plenty of references to cheesy sword and sorcery movies of the late twentieth century. Instead, it's about the often terrible ways that stories can distort our thinking, whether those stories come from the Bible, from Krull, or from our parents.
The most satisfying part of Wolf in White Van is that it raises more questions than it answers. Though we finally learn what has happened to Sean, and to some of the people who play his game, we are left to figure out the "why" for ourselves.
What makes one person wander into a fantasy world and then wander back out again, unscathed, while another is disfigured by it for life? The way that Darnielle forces you to think about these issues, in a variety of situations, will give you chills. Nothing is more terrifying, and more honest, than a story that acknowledges that there is no bright line between guilt and innocence.