Sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s, Sean Phillips, our 1st person protagonist. is a man of early middle age (?) who is severely disfigured, handicapped, having been shot in the face many years prior. The reconstruction is not perfect – his face is a mess. People stare at him, trying not to. So he mostly stays in his darkened apartment where he tends to the maintenance of a pre-digital (early 1970s) text-based, snail-mail, adventure game called “Trace Italian.” The game involves a highly dangerous, imaginary, post-apocalyptic world where players travel to complete quests in a terrain with lots of dungeons. This was right before most everyone was getting online. It’s when certain boys were taking to an old game called “Dungeons and Dragons” by mail.
Wolf in White Van
by John Darnielle
2014 / 224 pages
read by John Darnielle
rating: 8 / contemp fiction (techie?)
Sean still makes a bit of money doing this, mailing a few loyal customers/players the instructions and various help information. The trouble is that it has caused some problems when two kids from Florida die trying to take the game into the real world. (See Pokemon Go – but different.)
The parents of one of the kids took Sean to court, but Sean was found not to be responsible.
At that point Sean goes back through his life to the point where this all started. How did this tragedy come to pass? Darndielle takes us back through the years, a bit at a time, to when things might have started and how it got from point A to point C. Who Sean really is becomes the basic question and how did his face get so messed up? And, by way of a theme, what’s with all these lonely and isolated teenage boys and the violent roleplaying video/computer games? It resonates.
Sean is a very imaginative storyteller – ever since childhood he’s enjoyed stories – especially, when he was young, those like the gory Conan the Barbarian. As he grows older he makes up his own world and stories. As a homebound disfigured adult he needs a life. This is the one he makes for himself in large part to ward off the feelings associated with the fact he is now nothing and nobody in the world. He’s lost in his own world where he is in control, has power, etc.
He actually makes up stories about his medications and other things. When he has a story it helps to give things purpose – he needs purpose, meaning, in his life. His stories for “Trace Italian” are especially good. But how did he get this way? –
The intersting thing about this book from a literary standpoint is that Darnielle has chosen to use a backward chronology. We know he’s in court for the death of a young woman. A young man also died but the parents have dropped that suit. How the deaths happened, how Sean got injured happened first but are told last – almost, there are some differences, some overlaps. And it applies to all of us as we approach life with its goals and choices, dangers and wonderment.
One thing this backwards storytelling does is to tell us that Sean dies – “If you don’t go forward, you die.” There are other little motifs like religion and being god or living forever –
Sean is not exactly what anyone would call a reliable narrator – the reader is always wondering what in the world he really means. There’s so much going on inside him what with his game reality, game world, and his face and the lawsuit. The boy is nuts – no, I think what happened is he got stuck with the maturity of a 17-year old, going to the liquor store for a LOT of candy, etc.
AV Clube Magazine – review: