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Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

In the Trace, you know. You know to buy it
direct from Big Green Bookshop!
In a spontaneous act of Twitter altruism, (Twaltruism? Twittruism?), I deleted this and Darnielle's difficult second novel* from my Amazon wish list and ordered them from the Big Green Bookshop, an indie bookshop in Wood Green, London, whose co-owner Simon Key appears to be living one of my erstwhile dreams. He was once of Waterstone(')s, as was I. I once fanatsized of telling Waterstone(')s to fuck off and of opening my own independent bookshop. I clearly did not have the requisite fortitude to pursue my dream however, as one look at the business rates and shop rents in Cardiff city centre and I shut up and went back to work quietly and with no little abashment. Where was I? Oh yes, books. My choice was validated by Simon, who told me he really enjoyed Wolf In White Van.

And so did I. However, I wonder at my frame of mind when I read it. This may be a result of me having better things** to do than review books in a timely fashion, and thus leaving it weeks until I was at home, unwell and restlessly fidgety, to find the requisite motivation (boredom does wonderful things for my motivation) to get the job done. Because I can't remember how I felt when I was reading. 

There I was, only yesterday bemoaning Agassi for his lack of introspective powers, and here I am lacking the very same! 

So maybe some context and easily referenceable factual statements are in order. As you ALL will know, John Darnielle is the main force behind American indie folk band the Mountain Goats, and a stunning lyricist. This is his first novel proper (although he has written a 33 1/3 novella on Black Sabbath). In it, the narrator is Sean, a young man with, it's safe to say, some problems. He blasted his own face off with a rifle in his youth, and as a result, has thrown himself into the creation of his fevered imagination, what is essentially a role playing game, called Trace Italian***, managed entirely by post. Can you imagine? In this day and age! The game is managed with a file card system and players are given choices at each stage, with the idea that they make it across the desolate wastes of an end-of-world scenario America to The Trace Italian, a star-shaped city wherein the resolution of the game is to be found (if it exists). Unfortunately, for him and for the two players, two young people decided to follow his directions literally and interred themselves in the Kansas desert to survive a night out in the open; one died, one might as well have done so. 

Sean tells the story in as dispassionate a manner as he can, through veils of memory and often the pain of his own recovery. I recall his difficulties with his own recall, and one line which struck me as pertinent to my own experience of memory, something along the lines of 'was I even younger then than I supposed I was?' to paraphrase inexactly. And he tells without telling of the strange isolation he finds himself within, estranged from his parents who are unable to process his actions, both when he was seventeen and that led to the tragedy of his game-playing sweethearts, isolated from society for the way he looks. In one particularly interesting passage, he details a meeting outside a shop with some beer-drinking teenagers who are guilelessly fascinated by the damage to his face. Sean revels in the small and sympathetic interaction.

In truth, it is probably an incredibly moving novel, one filled with pathos, and a sad commentary on the barriers we erect and the ethereal bonds we make with others. In my memory, it flashed by without making much of an impact on me, although it nearly made me want to go out and buy some of the Robert E. Howard Conan novels. I will make a date to re-read it and will come back to you. 

*I have no idea if Universal Harvester is/was difficult–it's on the to-read shelves/pile. I just perpetuate literary myths for the fun of it.

**Not better, let me tell you...

***The title of the game, he tells us, is taken from a type of 16th-century fortification, the trace italienne, a star-shaped fortress designed to combat the use of cannonades by offering unrestricted defensive firing positions and which came to be the 16th-century ideal for the modern fortified city, in Italy at least. 


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