Conan the Barbarian has no parents, as far as I know, but in my mind he was my model: trying to stand strong and brave, sword in hand, black hair flowing. In truth I have very little hair on my head now, and the hair I do have tends to clump in stringy clusters, but if my eyes are closed and my concentration is strong I can form a different picture of myself in my mind, so this is what I did, standing by the waist-high desk where the phone was. I closed my eyes and I concentrated. Dad was getting ready to tell me about the funeral plans, I knew. I could make it easier for him if I tried hard enough. It isn’t really much of a mystery, this occasional need I have to comfort my father. I did something terrible to his son once.
That’s quite a lengthy passage to open with, but it’s fairly illustrative of a number of things. One, Wolf in White Van (2014) is a book about withdrawal, about finding fictional role models when there’s a scarcity of “real” ones, about self-protection by means of disappearing into fiction, about being way more distant from your parents than you are from Conan or rock stars or figures you’ve created from nothing, about eschewing life osmosis and mistrusting reality.
John Darnielle’s fine debut is a somber, contemplative piece about devastation and how adults and children can never meet in any middle. They live on separate, permanently estranged worlds, Darnielle has it, largely because kids reshape theirs on a moment-to-moment basis and create countless others and adults are too busy getting to grips with what they see as the “real version,” manageable, navigable, compromised. I think it’s partly about the dividing line between childhood and adulthood: a lament for all those myriad things we leave behind whenever we become adult, or take with us, with all the issues that involves. What it seems predominantly to be about, and what I responded to in particular, was the book’s preoccupation with story. More specifically how we impose fictional conviction — stories — on events that cannot be rationally comprehended, such as our lives.
Case in point: Sean, our narrator and protagonist, is an outsider, happy to drift off into the margins, even amongst his group of fellow square pegs. He wants something authentic, something his, something other than that his parents have drifted into. He has no idea what that is — but he feels that crude, home recorded thrash metal, Conan the Barbarian and obscure Brazilian sword brochures, for example, are a hint to him about a possible way to find whatever it is he’s missing and knows exists. He’s not so much anxious about the world as in awe of its latent possibilities. He’s at a certain volatile age — 17 — and for reasons that are never made explicit (which made the book much more fascinating for me than had we met, say, an abusive uncle during a flashback) tries to blow his head off with his dad’s rifle.
He largely succeeds, but survives. We are drip-fed a sense of others’ horror at the sight of him: he’s now a bit of a freak, so it seems, an immediate barometer as to the tolerance of those who glare at him.
His parents (and the book is hardly chronological: we shift back and forward as Sean tries to make sense of the fallout of his devastating act, until the book ends with the gun blast and “the rising squall beyond the door”) decide, barreling through their trauma by adopting a kind of relentless efficient imperturbability, that the act was clearly pre-meditated and probably long in the planning. Sean’s friend, Kimmy, a rare example of unwavering equilibrium, is part of their self-preserving version of events and is quickly banished. She is considered privy to some shared knowledge that they have been denied. The idea, which Darnielle does nothing to deter, that this really was an unexplainable event, a “move” taken at the end of millions of others, with no explanation for any of them, is unpalatable to Sean’s parents. Their ability to move on demands answers: their lives are a set pattern into which randomness cannot go. Sean, in being very much ‘in the world’ (perhaps too much so) is wilfully vulnerable and happy to expose himself to possibility and the unseen.
(With that in mind, the parental/child fragility is further emphasised. We can no sooner impose a series of safe events on our kids than we can get into their heads. We don’t own them: they will, at some point, be imperilled and we will be helpless to help them.)
Sean, once his hospitalization draws to a close, briefly returns home before permanently moving into his own apartment. During this period, and by way of coping with his new life, which is a barren, daunting, raw period during which he will have to endure not only a new identity as a badly deformed loner but as an independent adult, he formulates a game called ‘Trace Italian’ (which is borne out of endless hours marooned on a sterile ward with only ceiling cracks for company and the mere stray catchiness of that phrase: yet more stories out of randomness, reconstituted scraps, mental flotsam reappropriated, initiating tangential offshoots), an arcane mail-order role-playing quest that finds a surprising number of kindred spirits willing to pay a monthly fee to incrementally approach the mysterious titular tower that exists only in Sean’s drug-seared mind.
There are different kinds of players: some half-hearted that drift away, their payments and involvement suddenly stopping. But there are others who believe in this world, which has been birthed from terrible sadness and despair, and are as intense about it’s digressive details and unmistakable menace as is the creator.
I let people play for free in the early days. It was hard for me to imagine anybody signing up for a subscription without having gone through the first few passes, so I took out a dozen ads, some in bigger magazines, some in tiny self-published things I’d found at the comic store. The smaller ones sometimes didn’t re-set my type: they’d just shrink it a little, and when it ran, it looked just like it had when I’d stuffed it into an envelope at my desk. NEW BY-MAIL GAME — DEADLY FUTURE/IRRADIATED WORLD. FIGHT TO SURVIVE IN SEARCH OF THE TRACE ITALIAN, my copy read.
The majority of the novel centres (although, I repeat: the book slips in and out of periods and we’re fundamentally following Sean’s emotional journey as he mulls over all that’s unfolded) on a court case involving two players, one of whom dies (the other barely alive). That the players drifted “off map” is an issue: the choices, and the fatal over-enthusiasm (they begin to believe that Trace Italian is something real, physical) that leads to their final move in the game, are nothing to do with the “moves” provided by Sean. But he is, despite the court case against him being thrown out, blamed by plenty. They, like Sean’s parents ten years earlier, need resolution. Sean, and the players of “Trace Italian” who really get what it means, know that the very idea is folly: they are happy to wander the unmapped hinterlands without demand for end. Some become happily lost in incidental territories. It’s those that take it seriously and push for answers that run into serious trouble.
So Trace Italian is a quest for those who understand that the only quest is curiosity and an acceptance of open-endedness. Is that a more generational thing? A shunning of accepted norms and a demand for more beyond simple conclusions? Sean, in those early days back from intensive care, survives on the solace of imaginative succor. He segues into fanciful narratives on the merest of pretexts to endure his plight.
I sniffed at the bottle. There wasn’t a whole lot of scent left; just enough for me to grab hold of the memory of what it had been like getting this stuff from the dropper to my tongue. Like forcing a cadaver to drool something sweet into my mouth. Whole sweeping narratives had formed inside me around this medication, I remembered: stories I’d told myself to make taking it less numbing, to give not just meaning but intrigue to my dull condition. Explorers on distant South American mountainsides retrieving flowers from rock cliffs whose petals alone could yield the essence that would make the nauseating syrup in the tinted bottle: but you couldn’t get the essence directly from the petals; it was far too potent for human beings, it’d kill you; first you had to feed it to sparrows, whose livers filtered out the toxins, then cut out the livers and boil all the remaining organs in water. Then you strained the resulting decoction through cheesecloth and diluted it in a ten-to-one solution.
His imaginative embellishments, of such humdrum matters, are part of who he is. He’s always been inclined to build his own worlds out of information most might find banal: he keeps a wide aperture open on the world and then remodels the data. Rather than shun it, as he sees his parents do, he sees no need to adhere to any fixed reality, which, as he sees it, proffers material ready to be recast in firmer, more interesting narrative. Everything is remodelled and revised. His parents close the world down to apprehend it: he recycles everything in order to hold some kind of dominion over it. He doesn’t turn away from it: he turns it into something else.
(A brief note here on the title: “wolf in white van” is apparently what we might hear if we were to play a Larry Norman LP backwards. There’s a brief section in the book that gently chides those eager to a) play their vinyl backwards, b) seek to find Satan for their bizarre troubles and c) castigate things they don’t understand via ignorance or fabrication. There’s a funny moment where, so tenuous is this idea, musicians are usefully considered to be unbeknownst as to their doing the devil’s highly circuitous work.)
Or: you can find whatever you want anywhere if you believe in it. If you’re predisposed to surreptitious Satanism, just give your Doors ‘Strange Days’ LP a backward spin and, if you listen hard enough, you can hear something terrible that sounds like ‘Lucifer runs me down’ during the title track. You can feed your version of events by subverting whatever is most potent for an effective narrative. If you want to believe in magical kingdoms, no-one can censor your private cinema screen. If you make that magical kingdom manifest, and you externalize it, it’s no longer yours. Subsequently, you have no control over what it means to others. Your catharsis may be another’s dead-end or invitation to madness or dire risk. Sean’s creation of Trace Italian has led to a death. Does that make him responsible for it? I don’t believe so: art cannot be held accountable for acts that are summations of millions of other accumulated moments. Stories can be misread: all core religious texts always have been. The danger is in the multiple readings available: which is also why you’re reading it in the first place. That unspoken pact between the creator and the participant: a meeting of two stories, not a reading of one. As Kate Bush once sang: “What made it special/Made it dangerous.”
What Darnielle also interestingly does with his slight but powerful and thought-provoking work is to extrapolate the basic idea of the title for a paragraph or two. I was hoping he would: the title alone was enough to intrigue as to what the book might offer. It’s an odd title: you start to speculate (as Sean does). It could mean anything…and in this speculation you fall into step with Darnielle’s protagonist, who spins out a very mysterious but alluring name — “Trace Italian” — into an odyssey without end or limit. A name that means very little to the actual world it references, but without which it wouldn’t exist. As for the book’s title, it slips its origin as fairly nutty rock-music-as-the-devil’s-tool approximation in Sean’s head.
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, circling, the pads of his huge paws raw and cracking, his thick, sharp claws dully clicking against the raised rusty steel track ridges on the floor. Maybe he’s sound asleep, or maybe he’s just pretending. And then the van stops somewhere, maybe, and somebody gets out and walks around the side to the back and grabs hold of the handle and flings the doors open wide.
What I love about this (apart from it reminding me of a childhood watching John Carpenter (and much cruder, cheaper films with ambition way beyond their micro budgets)) is that it’s both preposterous and very, vividly powerful. Once the phrase — which exists out of a misheard determination to find hidden nefariousness — appears, it cannot be unthought and will become something new in every mind that hears it. That there is no wolf knocking about, scratching around in the back of a white van, underfed, ready to be unleashed, is not the point. The point is: ideas are powerful, and the capacity for humans to fathom narratives out of the strangest of them is hardwired. Everything becomes story, naturally, and mutates and moves, as there is no narrative ceiling other than time and existence itself. There is no central story other than our own mortality amid total uncertainty. It may be the case that we’re not actually meant to be here at all for any reason. Wolf in White Van is a reminder of our need to frame ourselves inside stories that make sense – until the world, often senseless, gets in.
But also: the thrill of building worlds which become concrete in other minds — and yet different every time. The replication of ideas as communion. Everyone knows who Conan is: he is an insubmersible icon. But the version you know with absolute certainty is always hewn from your own sensibilities and filters and memory. There’s a sense of both ownership and sadness that comes with all that. We’re sharing only so much: we’re on our own journey with all stories, true or false. Sean, at one point, relates Conan books written long after the death of Robert E Howard — he still “can’t get enough of them.” Because Conan, in his mind, is fully formed and absolutely what he wants and needs. Your interpretation of planet Earth, or Conan, or Krull (which is oft-referenced), or the way sunlight falls on your bedroom wall, will always be yours alone.
It’s impossible to actualized all plot possibilities — but then wrong choices shut out millions of potential variations. The loss and tension implicit in that, regarding the creation of art, is echoed in Sean’s replaying his life. He cannot change any of his past moves, but is still interpreting most of them, and mourning those they eternally nullified. And he also asks: what does a move that nearly spells ‘game over’ mean for those somewhat diminished moves left? Is his story being written with or without his volition, ultimately?
This feeling underpins everything in the book. We might call it “the anxiety of possibilities.” In finally recounting the near-death moment, Sean seems to have wanted to close off a huge number of options. He will never know why, or what’s driving him. He is the kind of person who will mourn his inability, whilst playing the arcade game Xevious (remember that?), to look inside the houses his bomb-dropping plane flies over and beyond. That they’re blocks of pixels formed into a house-shape is not enough to deter such yearning. He has instinctively fathomed previously non-existent inhabitants – they are now mentally “written” and are now a kind of blurry vestige in his mind every time he plays the game. He is cursed with this over-abundance of actualization throughout. Trace Italian bears the impression of depth but the moves are all pre-written. It’s a game he would never want to play himself, as he states. He already knows the outcome. More mysterious are the moves he makes day-to-day, goals uncertain, variables both tantalising and unbearably vague, futility omnipotent.
There’s a telling moment when Sean is accosted by two young men stood by a truck outside a store he’s just visited. We’re waiting for the “Hey freak!” moment but what happens instead is a pretty touching accord struck up. The others are just curious about his vicious injuries. Their brief conversation throws up a quiet revelation: none of them has any idea what their future will hold, and none of them seems to care. They share a language of ebullient desperation, and there is more warmth in their random exchanges than we ever see between Sean and his parents. More things to ponder with no hint at an answer. There is never any suggestion of any crucial formative occurrence or experience that might have led to the events in Sean’s life. There is an absence: of clues, of understanding, of the possibility of understanding. We get to know Sean at a remove, and he has no idea why any of this is happening, nor does he offer any likely substantiation.
There’s just something wonderfully, terribly sad about this book: the idea that needing to create is more necessary to some than others dependent on a wild array of factors. The terrible realisation that an entire constructed world may mean little to all but a handful (or even to no-one). The impulse to remain true to even the merest narrative digression: the sanctity of being able to take any idea and run with it, in any direction, without prohibition, however futile or crazy or unpopular, fleshing out creations that were non-existent (or were they?) for an eternity prior to whatever it was that brought them to fruition. The responsibility of the originator of an idea to his creation. The shame and mental debilitation of terrible thoughts and what they do to the thinker who can’t share them. All of these elements spring to mind when reading Wolf in White Van: how we’re all locked into one mindset and how, in this case, Sean can only really articulate his emotional reality via a fictional world.
Or, put another way: sadness fuels art — often directly here; there’s a scene where Sean is inspired by his father’s tears on the phone, and composes and maps new territories in his own sadness and on the mysterious mindscape of Trace Italian as he listens to the sobs — and whilst creativity can’t stop time, it can make use of all those terrible or irreconcilable and baffling experiences your life has produced, and perhaps prolong it in the process.
Most stories shut out the world in order to include their more manageable version of it: what’s missing is often as crucial as whatever is accurately represented. Towers may represent unbearable woe looming ominously over the landscape. Anything may represent anything. We can’t interpret or explain everything. Tragedies are, sometimes, their own universe. Their meaning is in every element as forming a whole: we’re not equipped to explain it all or even much of it. John Darnielle compellingly suggests that art speaks for itself, and often for us far more eloquently than we or the particulars of our lives can. Wolf in White Van is a fine example.