This is kind spoiler heavy, so if you haven’t read Wolf in White Van yet (or, rather, don’t know the circumstances of the main characters in the book), skip this post.
I got Wolf in White Van when it came out. There was an event in Cambridge that I went to with my friends (the same ones I would later see the Mountain Goats with a few months later—there might be a trend in which friends go where) where John Darnielle would be reading and answering questions about the book, though inevitably someone would ask a question about his band even though it really wasn’t the venue for it. I think the event for the ticket plus the book came to about $20, maybe $24. In any case, I got it and then…waited. It was, if I recall, a Wednesday, and I wanted to wait until the weekend so I could read it straight through—which I did.
I’m not going to say that was a good idea or a bad idea; there are very few books that I haven’t read in one sitting, and at least half of them I didn’t read all at once because I was reading them as part of a class. It’s generally how I read. As I mentioned in my commentary on Song of Achilles, it takes me a little bit of time after a book to really process it. Wolf in White Van has been out for over a year now, and in that time I don’t think I’ve said anything about it with my friends. Something last night made me think about it again, but I’m not sure if was talking about anxiety with my friends in a car for almost an hour, or if it was the fact that I was once again at a reading (but I’ll talk about that later). In any case, I realized that I’ve never made a formal assessment of my feelings on Wolf in White Van, which is a shame.
It’s a good book. That’s an understatement. This book hurt to read a lot of the time, which is probably why it’s taken me so long to think about it again after reading it. I was reminded of people I knew—that’s when you know a book is going to hurt; you don’t want to see people you’re friends with get hurt. I don’t tear up while reading very often unless I’m going through something in my own life that’s made more raw by a passage or a word or even a typeface, but Darnielle, again, had me crying. I’m not angry about it.
Darnielle does a really great job setting up scenes and making us believe that they’re real—even in the condensed story-telling form that is songwriting, giving audiences a solid sense of time and space is something at which he excels—but it’s little things that make a book burn. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book and I don’t have it on hand, but one thing that I remember is a Rush cassette. Little details like that stick out not like sore thumbs but like nails that keep you stuck to the place. Despite the fact that Wolf in White Van does a lot of interesting things narrative-wise with the way time works, it’s not always difficult to remember where you are.
The formative life choices that the characters make in this book—whether they mean them to be or not—are made during their teenage years, and unfortunately, the function in a similar way as the hamartia does in a tragedy. It’s not the flaw but the choice that makes a tragedy a tragedy, and you can wish desperately that they hadn’t decided to make those choices, but in the end, that’s what makes the book. The main character probably wouldn’t have created the game he did if he hadn’t shot himself, which is the provided reason for the main conflict of the entire novel.
When I finished reading Wolf in White Van, I was stunned for a little while. Sometimes books will take a lot out of a person, which isn’t to say that movies can’t, but you typically spend a little more time with a book than with a movie. It wasn’t the same kind of confusion I had regarding my feelings about Song of Achilles, which honestly, what not that good a book, because I knew immediately that I had liked it. The characters were enjoyable and the prose was clean. I think it’s more that I wasn’t sure what other emotions I was feeling at the time, and again, part of that might have been because at the time I read the novel, I was going through some of my own emotional grief, and I didn’t know how much of what I felt was because of the book or because of that.
In any case, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s okay for literature to leave us vulnerable—it’s something I think literature is supposed to do.