Nesbit Likes: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle


This week’s Nesbit Likes – as well as the next few – will take a step from poetry and focus on prose. More specifically, novels that have been brilliant reads, each a strong recommendation for your next book.

There are no spoilers below!

To some, Darnielle is well known as the lead singer / songwriter for the band The Mountain Goats. Like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, he has shown his beautiful prose in novels, where music is a clear aid to great writing.

The story goes. Main character Sean Phillips runs a play-by-mail roleplaying game called Trace Italian. Strangers from all over the country take part, sending him their decisions and actions and he replies with the consequences, akin a Dungeon Master. It catches wind and a good handful of people take part, which means a lot of work and writing for Sean. Suited for him, as he spends most of his time indoors, leading an introvert life.

But there’s real horror to Wolf in White Van. Told non-chronologically, we slowly learn about Sean and his world. Pieces are put together of a picture we cannot begin to predict. In their practice, crime novels may shape a future, where we suppose the ends will be tied. But there’s no mystery here. Instead, this finished jigsaw puzzle details the dramatic events of his life: we explore his childhood, his adolescence, his experiences with love, his family, how his game, Trace Italian, brought severe peril to two teenagers, and how his face became severely disfigured.

It’s not long after starting this book before you realise the text has sunk it’s hooks, and you’re compelled to continue, eager to find out what Sean isn’t necessarily hiding, but has prepared for you in time. With an unforgettable final act, an ending that has lingered for months, this is a refreshing example of storytelling done well.

The characters are raw and delicate; the delivery is forceful and frightening. With efficient prose, at times wondrous and vivid, this was a brilliant read. Darnielle writes peacefully, with delicious syntax and control, and then he pulls the rug out from under your feet, before you even knew the rug was there.