‘A powerful debut, which won’t come as a surprise to any Mountain Goat fans’ – Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

wiwvjdSean has had an accident. Or done something wrong. He’s disfigured. But others have died. Only one thing happened years ago. And the other feels relatively recent. He remembers his dad carrying him down the hallway. But he’s living alone. We get the sense he maybe tested the patience of those who were once close to him. Now there’s just Vicky. Or Victory as he likes to call her. His nurse. She comes to check on him, make sure he’s ok. At some point, maybe predisfigurement, he liked to sit in his grandparent’s garden and pretend he was Conan – he had a thing for Conan, read all the books – but when he pretends to be Conan he is a different Conan, a merciless Conan given to merciless bloodshed. Later, he develops a game, a kind of analogue Dungeons and Dragons, done via post. He places adverts in magazines, people send him stamps, ten dollars; he sends them moves. Once, he grew closer – as close as you can grow via a mail order game – with one of the players, a guy called Chris, who took it seriously. This would happen again, later still, with a couple of players who maybe, in retrospect, took things too seriously.

Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle has only gone and written a debut novel and it’s as sharp, unusual and original as the Mountain Goats themselves (if you’re unfamiliar with the Mountain Goats, I’d recommend you start with Tallahassee, a sort of concept album – if you only have time for one song, play ‘No Children’). In some respects, the book takes time to settle – the opening chapters zips back and forth – but when it does settle, into the story of a young man caught between the twin pillars of an event that disfigured him and an event that saw two people hurt, the reader is able to grasp, quite quickly where and when we are at any give time (and Darnielle is given to moving, Sound and Fury-like, from one time to another with the minimum of fuss so it’s important you pay attention, just as it’s important Darnielle throws you periodic bones in order to hang on).

The way in which the narrative is framed demonstrates that Darnielle is intelligent; the writing itself demonstrates that Darnielle has both a voice and an eye for detail that hooks you. Here he is describing the sound of various bits and pieces in his friend Kimmy’s purse:

“To me it sounded like somebody shaking up dry bones. I closed my eyes and thought about those old bones in some girl’s purse and then I let my mind go: if you wanted to fit bones into your purse they’d have to be broken into pieces; you couldn’t fit a whole arm bone or a leg bone or a skull in there, just teeth, toes, and fingers; maybe kneecaps; but my imagination told me teeth would  make a high sound, like pieces of glass, and toes would sound dull, like old crushed cans.”

No doubt, Wolf in White Van is an unusual book, Eric Stoltz’s Mask refracted through Freaks & Geeks if it had reached season 7 (or something), with an odd pinch of mid-West musician memoir (if you ditched the disfigurement and concentrated on the tapes of local bands that permeate the book, you could be reading Bob Mould’s biography). If you are familiar with the story of Richard Lee Norris (or indeed the character of Arseface in Preacher), you’ll have a sense of the general arc of the book in some ways (right up to the possible reconstructive surgery for Sean that Norris has himself had in the real world). Quite likely it won’t be for everyone (because it makes you work a little), but Darnielle’s fans will find much here that is tender and surprising and soulful.

Any Cop?: A powerful debut, which won’t come as a surprise to any Mountain Goat fans. Whether Darnielle plans to embark on a second career Willy Vlautin-style is up for debate. We’d certainly read more by him though.


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