Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
I came to Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle reluctantly. Probably because it’s heavy on pop culture and involves a role-playing game called “Trace Italian” that features a post-apocalypse America—and I’m kind of weary of both.
But I was drawn in after reading about Sean, the book’s protagonist, a young man isolated by a suicide-gone-wrong when he was seventeen years old who is now so disfigured he can’t go out in public because his presence is too upsetting to people. He describes his lips as “flayed,” his cheeks as “resewn flaps,” and his nose as a “recessed pit.”
This description immediately brought to mind a man I saw one summer eighteen years ago walking down the boardwalk in Virginia City, Montana (population 100). His face was so disfigured that, to my shame, it was difficult to look away. A ten-year-old boy ran ahead of him in the street then turned around to stare at what he no doubt considered a monster until the man passed him, then the boy ran ahead again, turned again, stared again. I have never forgotten my fury at that young boy, the sorrow I felt for that poor man, and my own terrible shame. I didn’t know the compassionate thing to do. Surely he would have liked to have a normal conversation with someone about the weather, the news, or, maybe, his life, what happened. Or surely he would have liked simply to be left alone to experience the simple joy of walking down the street on a Sunday morning. Or surely he wanted to scare the living shit out of that little boy by running after him snarling. I wasn’t sure of anything except my own inadequacy.
So I picked up Wolf In White Van hoping I might find a way to understand myself as much as to understand something of that man.
Wolf In White Van delivered on both.
The book's title comes from a program on Trinity Broadcasting Network, which Sean watched semi-obsessively for some time. During one show, a former rock musician talked about how, if certain songs were played backward, they would "spread the message of Satan.” Played backward, one of the records supposedly played the words, "wolf in white van.” Young Sean calls in to mess with them:
I reached down into my imagination and made a strangled gurgling sound with my throat, vocalizing on the inhale and curling my tongue into various positions to make it sound like I was talking in reverse. I scared the hell out of myself with this sound: it felt real.
Finally Carol, the prayer warrior on the line, asks him to pray:
Sean, you don’t have to live as a slave…Jesus paid the price for you. Will you pray the sinner’s prayer with me now?
I drink the blood of my slaves, I said, in a hushed-house whisper clean out of nowhere, shocking myself and feeling the power, and that was when she hung up.
Then Sean wonders: What if the wolf is real?:
But at that moment all I could see was the wolf in the white van, so alive, so strong. Hidden from view, unnoticed, concealed. And I thought, maybe he's real, this wolf, and he's really out there in a white van somewhere, riding around. Maybe he's in the far back, pacing back and forth. … Maybe he's driving.
I laughed out loud reading this entire scene, thinking how much fun that would be. It reveals so much about the young man he was—funny, daring, imaginative, and, ultimately, thoughtful. Years later, in remembering this phone call to the radio station, he reflects not on the prank, but on what he made of it all:
I try to see what makes him tick, but I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. It just happens all by itself, tick tick tick tick tick, without any proximal cause, with nothing underneath it.
Then Sean narrates the story—backwards—ending at the beginning, at the suicide attempt that put all the events of the story in motion.
From the beginning his emotional and physical pain is clear:
Every thought or emotion I have is focused on the pounding pain in my face, which feels as big as the side of a barn. I hurt so much that I would trade anything for relief, do anything, hurt anyone.
He survives by inventing and administering “Trace Italian,” a text-based role-playing game that is played through the mail. Players send in SASEs and he sends them back their next moves. He invents the game while recovering in the hospital, in unbearable pain, staring at the ceiling through his bandaged face:
Lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit…I started to fill in the details.
The game absorbs him and allows him to be engaged without going out in public. But of course he longs for human interaction. Early in the novel he describes why that desire will simply go unfulfilled:
Normal adult shopping is something I will never actually do, because it’s no more possible for me to go shopping like normal adults do that it is for a man with no legs to wake up one day and walk. I can’t miss shopping like you’d miss things you once had. I miss it in a different way. I miss it like you would miss a train.
I couldn’t get over that gorgeous double use of the word “miss”—first as longing for something, and then as being too late, being passed by.
He reiterates this sense of “missing” when he describes his inability to express what he feels to his parents because the parents he wants to talk to have already left the station, so to speak. The parents he has now have no capacity to understand:
They held on to their anger until after they’d exhausted their leads; then it was gone. I don’t know what they replaced it with. Something, I figure. I feel guilt, and sympathy, and shame, and I share it with them in letters I don’t mail, because the people who need to read those letters are also gone.
His mother can’t seem to stop crying about her son. At one point she tells him that she worries he’s going to be lonely. Then he swivels his eyeballs in her direction and says:
“I was going to be lonely anyway.”
There is a particularly brutal and sad interchange Sean has with his father. Sean’s beloved grandfather has died and his father struggles to find a way to ask Sean not to attend the funeral:
it’s too hard for people to look at him. His father stumbles with the request, ultimately letting it dribble out in an unfinished sentence:
It’s really hard to—
—to be around you. The truth that can’t be spoken. All conversations detour around the horrible fact of his face. The silence contains all the pain.
After his father’s botched effort, Sean describes a trick he’s learned to cope, a description so antiseptic that it stings:
When anger rears up in me I have a trick I do where I picture it as a freshly uncoiled snake dropping down from the jungle canopy and heading for my neck. If I look at it directly it’ll disappear, but I have to do it while the snake’s still dropping or it will strike. This sounds like something they’d teach you in therapy at the hospital or something, but it’s not. It’s just a trick I found somewhere by myself. Once you’ve looked at a deadly thing and seen it disappear, what more is there to do? Walk on through the empty jungle toward the city past the clearing.
Wolf In White Van is not just, or even primarily, about what it’s like to feel marginalized or a freak. It’s about what it’s like to be human—on both sides of that disfigured face: the person looking out and the person looking in.
When I closed the slim novel—only 205 pages—I wondered about that disfigured man ambling down Main Street in Virginia City eighteen years ago. What might I do now? I hope I would reach out my hand. I hope I would acknowledge his specific humanity. I hope I would say, perhaps, “What happened to your face? That must be really hard.” I hope I would reach as deep as I needed to so that he wouldn’t have to stare down a snake, so that he wouldn’t have to walk on through the empty jungle toward the city, but could stay right here and talk—about anything.
You can buy Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle at your local bookstore, get it at the library, or order it online at:
Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/wolf-in-white-van-john-darnielle/1118139035?ean=9781250074713
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >