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Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pages, $24

This is a psychological mystery, not a criminal one. And it blew my socks off! Apparently it blew the socks off the nominating members of the National Book Award committee as well. It has been longlisted for this year’s fiction award.

Sean Phillips suffered a debilitating injury at the age of 17. “Wolf in White Van” flicks between flashbacks of the time surrounding the disabling event and Sean’s life many years later. John Darnielle slowly teases out the story of Sean’s second chance. Was Sean haunted by a darkness, a nervousness, an apathy, an ambiguous vision of his life? In the end, is he satisfied, maybe even happy, with who he is and what he does?

Sean has developed a role-playing game. He began it before computers were the sine qua non of gaming. With typewritten instructions, Sean sends his players on a gigantic choose-your-own-adventure. Even when computers begin to produce similar games, people still write him from all around the world. They do not meet in real life but are mutually dependent. Ah, but for some the line blurs between Trace Italian, Sean’s post-apocalyptic survival game, and real life.

Everyone — his high school friends, the players of the game, his family — has an effect on Sean’s life, but they cannot help him answer the ultimate question he doesn’t even know he has asked. As with his choose-your-own-adventure game, Sean ponders what it means to answer one way and then, after seeing where that path led, to answer in yet another.

The title comes from a garbling of lyrics on a record. Sometimes people hear what they want to hear. And in Sean’s world, they sometimes believe what they want to believe.

It’s difficult to describe this book without tripping over the surprises Darnielle craftily offers when they are least expected. The review I read, the one that made me want to read this book, pretty much blasted the main surprises right out in the first paragraph. Not fair, I say.

It’s not just the snaking plot that is compelling; the writing is grade-A-quirky. For instance, Sean imagines what it took to produce one of his medicines:

Explorers on distant South American mountainsides retrieving flowers from rock cliffs whose petals alone could yield the essence that would make the nauseating syrup in the tinted bottle: but you couldn’t get the essence directly from the petals; it was far too potent for human beings, it’d kill you; first you had to feed it to sparrows, whose livers filtered out the toxins, then cut out the livers and boil all the remaining organs in water.

If Sean can imagine sparrow livers, then I can imagine this book is a mystery and award it an MBTB star.

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