Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle

Indie rock fans of a certain age might know John Darnielle better as the frontman of (or the solo act known as, depending on the era) The Mountain Goats. Wolf in White Van is his second work of fiction; he previously wrote a YA novel called Master of Reality about the Black Sabbath album for the 33⅓ series. Some readers of both say these two works tread on similar ground: troubled adolescents, heavy metal tapes. This one seems a little more developed and intricately woven.

Sean Phillips was 17 when a terrible accident left him disfigured, and his only form of work as an adult has been creating and maintaining games that are played by subscribers sending their moves to him through the mail, enabling him to live a reclusive life. The story slowly untangles that initial accident while exposing the loneliness of his life in the years since. The events move mostly in reverse, appropriate since the title refers to the concept of backwards masking, the idea that satanic messages are hidden in recorded music and can only be heard by playing it backwards. To some degree this takes some of the power out of the story, especially as there’s a certain amount that the narrator leaves unsaid. If you expect to find a clear “reason” for why certain things have happened, you’ll likely find disappointment at the end of the words. As is clear from Darnielle’s music, he has a keen, empathetic sensitivity for stories of alienation and trauma, but it turns out he also has skill in spinning longer-form stories.

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