Book Review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

4 out of 5 Stars

The Blurb

Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move. Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in Southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian – a text-based, roleplaying game played through the mail – Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.

Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy. 

My Thoughts

Oh boy, where to start with this novel…

I was intrigued by the premise right from the beginning. A disfigured young man, cut off from society partially by his own choosing, makes his living through a mail order choose-your-own-adventure game. The game itself is interesting, a dungeon crawl style adventure set in a post-apocalyptic world of mutants and violent bandits. I loved the geeky references, obscure music, and strong RPG themes.

But the storytelling is the most unique aspect of this novel. Unfolding in flashbacks and snippets of game play, the story is told almost completely in reverse. It’s a bit hard to follow in places, but that only adds to the reading experience, emphasizing the main character’s battle with mental illness and his sometimes tentative grip on reality.

Major trigger warnings for disassociation, suicide, depression, and death. I had to set this novel down several times because it gets pretty heavy. Seriously, make sure you’re in a good head space before picking this novel up.

The ending is abrupt, sad, and utterly unsettling. Don’t expect to have any sense of closure or you’ll be sorely disappointed. I give Wolf in White Van 4 out of 5 stars. I can’t say I necessarily ‘enjoyed’ this novel, but I was definitely intrigued right through to the ultimately tragic conclusion.

Happy Reading!

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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