Wolf in White Van

February 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

wolfWolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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Something terrible happens to a teenager. This isn’t noteworthy in and of itself (terrible things happen to teenagers every day), but Sean is reduced to being carried to and from his bedroom due to the terrible thing that befell him. We know this at the very start of Wolf in White Van, but it will take until we get to the end of the book to know exactly what happened, and why it happened.

Along the way, Sean introduces us to a play-by-mail role-playing game that he began creating after his accident. We get more glimpses into this world than into his own at first, but slowly, we realize that the world he creates in his game reflects what he’s been going through in his life. It’s Sean’s way of processing all the terrible things in his life, up to and including and after his accident.

Wolf in White Van can be frustrating, since the story takes its time in revealing the details of Sean’s life, but it can also be compelling, as you’re drawn into his narrative and read to see what’s happened in Sean’s life. This isn’t anything new to fiction, but Darnielle handles it with the right amount of tension, like teasing a fish onto the hook when it begins to nibble at the bait.

The story is told backward, revealing small pieces of the larger story from the climax to the point where we understand better why things happened the way they did. We don’t get a full understanding, since the large “Why?” question is never explicitly answered, but when in life do we get all the answers? Interestingly, the title of the book comes from what one can supposedly hear when playing Larry Norman’s song “Six, Sixty, Six” backward. The book, like the song, is backmasked.

The book isn’t easy, though it’s not unreadable. For such a short novel, it carries a heavy weight, forcing you to concentrate on seemingly minor details. Nothing is extraneous; everything is important. The temptation to rush through the story is great (not just to get answers, but also thanks to Darnielle’s pace), but to do so runs the risk of missing a key detail.

This book was published to great acclaim from critics and readers, for good reason. It’s thoughtful and readable, compelling and challenging, somber and reassuring. It’s not a feel-good book by any means, but it feels necessary. It may not be for all readers, but it has something important to say.

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