John Darnielle, lead singer and sometimes solo artist behind the indie "group" The Mountain Goats, no longer sings one of his signature songs in concert. "Going to Georgia," at first glance a tender love song ("the most remarkable thing about coming home to you is the feeling of being in motion again," Darnielle opines) has dark underpinnings; it seems to be a love story, but it's also the story of a man who crosses county lines with a gun to meet his true love: "You smile as you ease the gun from my hands/I am frozen with joy right where I stand."
Of "Going to Georgia," Darnielle now writes in his tumblr: "I don't play 'Going to Georgia' any more [sic] because I can’t really reconcile how buoyant it is with how much I dislike its narrator—when I wrote it, I enjoyed that tension, but I was more of an aesthete then and now I think more with my gut. My gut tells me the whole deal with 'Going to Georgia' is bogus, so that's that. A better song would be one from the perspective of the person whose former partner has shown up on the porch of his/her house with a damn gun, that's the hero of the song whose story is more interesting from where I'm at now."
And yet many of Darnielle's other songs are also haunted by the specter of violence. For example, his popular "Against Pollution" includes the following lyrics: "A year or so ago I worked at a liquor store/And a guy came in/Tried to kill me so I shot him in the face/I would do it again/I would do it again." "Matthew 11:14-19" features a crazed, gun-wielding prophet; "For Charles Bronson" describes a day in the life of the cinematic gunfighter.
Darnielle's musical output is vast enough—fourteen albums, a half-dozen cassette releases, twenty EP and single releases—that one can't quite call this a motif, but it certainly is a recurring element. And it appears at the heart of Wolf in White Van, Darnielle's second novel. Wolf in White Van tells the story of Sean Philips, a disfigured shut-in whose face was destroyed in a mysterious gun-related accident and who relies on subscriptions to a play-by-mail adventure game (think: a post-apocalyptic Zork) to both provide income and weakly tether him to the outside world.
Sean is meant to be in some ways repulsive, not just physically ("Reconstructed skin is very sensitive . . . the heat would slacken the resewn flaps of my cheeks a little," Darnielle writes on page 4), but emotionally. His affect is often flat ("The ghost is holding his head in his hands, making a ghost sound" [p. 51]). He hallucinates—one of the novel's most terrifying passages describes a television broadcast which Sean believes subtly changes from one airing to the next as a sort of secret code meant only for him—and refuses medical and psychological help which might make his life better. The game he designs, Trace Italian, leads to the death of one teenager and the hospitalization of another. But instead of reconsidering his own role in their tragedy, Sean fixates on the inherent goodness of escapism; in his courtroom response to the bereaved parents of these children, he can't resist commenting on their game-play:
The Trace is a good place. It is a place where people can go, in their imaginations. That is a good thing and while I'm sorry it went wrong for your daughter it is not wrong by itself.
By the way and against advice of counsel I want to say that Lance and Carrie were technically right. Of the four possibilities on the paper, the one that would have moved them in the direction they wanted to go was FORAGE FOR ROOTS. I don't know why I want to tell you this. I know it doesn’t help my case. I just feel like I owe it to them to let you know. They were right to start digging. But they were only right to start digging in the game, not out in the real world. Not in Kansas in actual ground. I am so so sorry. (p. 63)
And yet, though he recognizes a potential exit after one of his players, Chris Haynes, kills his character off, Sean cannot bring himself to exit the game world:
These guys can't touch me I'm going to live forever, Chris says toward the end of his second page, preparing to hurl himself upward and face-first toward the riders who weren't supposed to pose any threat, who had no designs on him down in the dirt in his overnight lair. I remember reading this letter and closing my eyes, both seeking out and fleeing from the sharp memory it called up, unable to decide where to go, where to put the parts of myself it seemed to make manifest in the room. (pp. 181-2)
Despite the fact that Sean is clearly a somewhat horrific character—not unlike a modern version of the protagonist of Camus's The Stranger, locked in a maze of inaction, the reasoning behind his few deliberate choices oblique even to himself—he's also meant to be sympathetic, especially to genre readers. His life is littered with references to pop culture that feel like familiar old friends. There's not only the game of Trace Italian itself, but also the magazines he advertises it in (Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), the heavy metal he and his friends consumed as teenagers, passing references to Xevious and well-worn editions of the Dungeon Master's Guide. But most interesting, perhaps, is the symbolic importance John Norman's Gor series has come to play in Sean's life:
The Gor books, by contrast, were shameful and garish. The pictures on their covers were pornographic, but in an almost dishonest way: near-nude mutants leering out into the fluorescent air of the drugstore aisle. Willingly or not, they seemed to suggest that maybe you shouldn't actually be reading these books. And so I never did. I would stare at their covers, and maybe thumb through them a little, picking out phrases and images like a secret shoplifter. But that would be enough for me, and sometimes more than enough. I didn't need to hear the stories the books were trying to sell me: their skins haunted and troubled me enough. But I would assemble my own stories, based on the information I had from the covers; and in my stories, there'd be winners, victors, spoils to divide, satisfying conclusions to things. Happy endings sometimes. I felt sure the books themselves would be less kind to their characters, that whatever was actually going on inside was dark and mirthless. There was this odd, flat sort of desolation in those covers. Steam or smoke rising from a distant city, seen from a boat out on the water: grimy, vivid. It always made me feel uneasy. (p. 49)
In some ways, Wolf in White Van feels a bit like literary fiction's answer to Lev Grossman's The Magicians series. They both tell the story of what happens to the children who grew up as genre fans, how that love of the otherworldly seeds itself across one's real, adult life. Though often unlikeable, Quentin Coldwater is clearly meant to be heroic, an analog to the often male, often white, often middle class consumer of children's fantasy novels. I'm not so sure that's the case for Sean Phillips—he's too close to the stereotype of a basement dwelling sci-fi shut in to be immediately sympathetic to the genre reader. And yet we're still meant to recognize ourselves in him and in his tireless, nostalgic connection to the speculative community's outsider art. Sean's disfigurement, though repulsive, also has the potential to liberate him from normal human interactions—it makes him different, special. A superhero. As Darnielle writes:
If I were to scream right now, these two would jump straight out of their skins. Just open up my mouth as wide as it will go and start shrieking. Watch them run or freeze in place or just start screaming right back. These urges are still present sometimes. They rise and pop like bubbles on the surface of a bog, and then they're gone. They don't trouble me. They are voices from a distant past. (p. 70)
Sean is then, perhaps, not the healthiest of role models; one can't help but wonder what the narrative would look like from the perspective of the two teenagers caught in the web of Trace Italian who eventually expire due in no small part to Sean's actions. But the moral quagmire presented in Wolf in White Van (like the similarly morally grey body of work that Darnielle has built in The Mountain Goats) doesn’t necessarily impact its quality—it remains a powerful novel.
Darnielle’s language is spare and strong, and the narrative unravels in an interesting way, chronologically reversed so that the climax is also the book’s inciting incident. Darnielle's mastery on both the micro and marco levels reassures the reader as to his competence, and this confidence is bolstered by the strength of the novel's broader universe. The world of Wolf in White Van is immediately familiar as our own, through every detail, big and small. And this world is exceedingly mundane, for example:
I was eleven, maybe twelve, I'm not completely sure, when I was given a small black-and-white television and told I could keep it in my room. My grandmother had just died; she was my mother's mother, and she'd lived most of her life in one house, just a mile or so away from where we settled when we finally circled back to Montclair. When she died, she left behind a room all full of grandma things, things too familiar to be given to Goodwill but too yellowed to be kept out in plain view. In the wake of her death a small windfall came my way. Besides the television, I got two transistor radios; a blanket that smelled, as I would later learn, like a hospital smells; and a hollow stone statue of an owl, which had been sitting atop the wall-mounted heater in my grandmother's room for as long as I could remember. (p. 96)
In these small, significant details, Darnielle reveals a world—our world—that Sean seemingly believes is imbibed with a strange, potent magic which goes utterly untapped. This is a novel of depression, of inaction, of truisms and tautologies, of games which fail to transcend our own reality and so lead to ruin, of novels that are keys to one's development and yet go utterly unread.
Wolf in White Van is not an easy book, though it is a slim book, and Sean Philips is in no way an easy character even though it's easy to dismiss him as a cliché: sci-fi fan, shut-in, broken, depressed. But there's something deeper about this narrative, something more. Like Darnielle's "Going to Georgia," which wraps a tale of not-at-all romantic gun violence in a rocking, fist-pumping anthem, Wolf in White Van tells the story of unhealthy escapism, suicidal ideation, and dysthemia in an accessible, strongly written, and nostalgia-laden little novel. It's a powerful achievement, made more powerful for its contrasts and complexities.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. Her first book, Starglass, came out in July from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.