John Darnielle 4/5 In classic adventure games – particularly the DOS-era, text-based kind – the world fits into a neat order; if the player makes the right series of choices, he attains his goal. In Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle has imagined such a game: Trace Italian, a mail-based adventure in which players navigate a dystopian landscape and seek the Trace, their fortress. The narrator, Sean, created the game; he has plotted its microcosm and the available moves, a brilliantly imagined reaction to the unplanned turns of his own life.
In the real world, Sean has encountered some undefined physical damage. Hints emerge. Kids ask what happened to his face. There was a shotgun and an error in Sean’s action or inaction, but Darnielle, smartly, leaves the violent details for the novel’s end. First, he leads us through Sean’s life, a place where, amid trauma and its rippling effects, fictions collapse into reality. The author subtly shapes his story around the books, films and characters that have long been Sean’s escape: Conan the Barbarian, the 1980s heroic fantasy movie Krull and Robert E. Howard’s pulp novels. These sanctuaries of fiction earn their significance in retrospect, as Trace’s players begin to believe the game’s safe space actually exists. It’s a treacherous loss of control for them and for the game’s creator.
At times, the story seems not to coalesce – too many shallow characters, too many foreshortened story lines, too many references. And then the realisation: Wolf in White Van is less a plotted narrative than our own quest through Sean’s experience.
Some pages are offshoots from the central path, but Darnielle, a diligent guide, always steers us back towards the goal of understanding, as best we can, how Sean came to be so disfigured and why. In the end, that knowledge is our reward. Lauren Spinelli