When Sean Phillips was a child, he assumed a throne in his grandparents’ backyard. It was a rock on which Sean perched and invented a dark world of imagination. “No one liked living there, not even its king. It has a soundtrack. All screams.”
Fast forward a decade or so, and Sean’s real world is nearly as horrific as his puerile fantasies: his face, grotesquely rearranged; his livelihood threatened; relationships fractured; and daily interactions dwindled to caregivers and random encounters with strangers who exclaim, “Dude, your face!”
This is the world created by singer/songwriter John Darnielle in a complicated fiction called Wolf in White Van. It’s an excavation into darkness, a story told backward, similar to the 2000 film Memento. The protagonist, Sean, has suffered a catastrophic event at age 17. After leaving the hospital and rehab, he returns home for a while, but then his parents, unable or unwilling to cope with what happened, ask him to move out. He is able to support himself because of good insurance and income from games he invented and sells by subscription through the mail.
The biggest and best, Trace Italian, was his first idea (“ There is something fierce and starved about first ideas”), developed during his recovery, when there was nothing else for his body or mind to do. It’s not a video game, but one with a story line and instructions that are written and delivered via US mail:
For the third time since sunrise, you see men in gas masks sweeping the highway. It’s dusk. They are approaching the overpass where you hide in the weeds….
The backdrop is an apocalyptic society, in which flesh-eating mutants roam the continent, looking for edible survivors in a contaminated society. The humans, the players, are trying to reach the lone safe place, the Trace Italian, the term taken from trace italienne, an ancient defensive strategy.
To play, participants choose actions from an array of possibilities that Sean offers. For example, those making it to an astrologer’s shack find the astrologer on the floor, dead, and then have to choose their next move. Do they flee, or steal the man’s knife and bury the body? It’s all done in writing, or at least is supposed to be, which is why it’s a shock when Sean learns that a player has died and her teen-aged boyfriend is in critical condition after acting out a part of the game. How and why this tragedy occurred is a storyline that duels with the how and why of Sean’s own condition.
The title comes from a real-life incident, recounted in the book, about the passing hysteria over “satanic” messages concealed in music recordings played backward. A song by Christian rock singer Larry Norman (who died in 2008) was said to have hissed “wolf in white van” when played backward, although the existential value of the phrase is dubious, as Sean points out when he hears a debate on a Christian TV show and calls in to the show. What follows is both troubling and funny, and leads to a philosophical aside:
“Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark room. I sift and rake and dig around in my vivid recollections of young Sean on the floor in summer, and I try to see what makes him tick, but I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. … He is like a jellyfish adrift in the sea, throbbing quietly in the warm waves of the surf just off the highway where the dusty white vans with smoked windows and indistinct decals near their wheel hubs roll innocently past.”
The author, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist for the band The Mountain Goats, takes a potentially unsympathetic character and makes him enormously sympathetic by virtue of his disfigurement and vocabulary. (How many self-employed gamers can use the phrase “gestural semaphore”?) In his childhood game, Sean played a cruel king, thirsty for blood, who decreed, “Everyone in my orbit would have a terrible day.” The orbit doesn’t get much kinder as it expands and ages; Sean’s world remains “a smoking, wrecked kingdom,” but when the end comes, it is not a relief. This is good, because a complete understanding of what transpires may require a thorough second reading.
When the player dies, Sean says, “My grief sought out all parts of my body it hasn’t inhabited yet, and I felt like I might collapse in on myself right there, at last, spectacularly.” The young man’s face is “strange and terrible.” This is an apt description, too, of this story, but it is a strange and terrible story told beautifully.
Originally published in The Hippo. Read my new reviews here every Thursday.