John Darnielle has a very distinctive prose style: long, lyrical sentences that weave paragraphs that gain weight as much from the complex route they travel as from the content they convey.
He narrates the audiobook version of “Wolf In White Van” and brings to the text a calm, almost uninflected, but never boring, tone that speaks of intelligence, imagination, disengagement, patience and hopeless endurance.
The narrative of “Wolf In White Van” is a Möbius Strip of continuous stream of consciousness, punctuated with ellipses in both content and thought that have the effect of making your imagination fill in the gaps and impose a pattern.
The content of “Wolf In White Van” is a walk through the mind of Sean Phillips, a broken, scarred, isolated man who spends more time in his head than in the real world and perhaps more time in his imagination than in his memories or his current experiences although he can’t be entirely certain of this.
This is a clever book: beautifully designed, skillfully told and deeply original.
It is also a very unsatisfying book, not because the content is unpleasant or because almost nothing happens or even because of the self-consciously intellectual presentation but because the solipsism at the heart of the novel is sterile. When I’d unfurled the plot and understood the path that Sean Phillips had traveled, I really didn’t care.
At one point in the novel, the origin of the title is explained: “Wolf In White Van” was alleged to be a Satanic message that could be heard when a Larry Norman song was played backwards. When, as a boy, Sean Phillips hears this allegation, he wonders why the devil would go to all the trouble of writing his message backwards, if he really wanted it to be heard. I felt pretty much the same way about this novel. It is a puzzle that is more interesting than its solution; a game that is about the journey, and how we bring our own lives into that journey when we populate gaps and impose patterns, claiming the narrative and altering the story, rather than being about the revelation of the plot.
If this kind of thing appeals to you, you’ll be giving this “Wolf In White Van” five stars. Personally, I gave it three because it reminded me of a Tinguely sculpture: elaborate, ingenious but lacking in emotional impact.
Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear John Darnielle reading “Wolf In White Van”.