Despite the acoustic guitar driving most of his music as the leader of celebrated American band The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle hung out with the ‘metal kids’ in high school. During more than two decades as a songwriter, he has returned again and again to young misfits who find solace in music and other forms of escape – whether comic books, games, movies, or drugs. Perhaps because he’s been there himself, Darnielle has managed to do this without appearing exploitive or condescending, and his first full-length novel follows suit.
Wolf in White Van takes us into the mind of Sean Phillips, who is very much defined by an ‘accident’ at age seventeen that left him disfigured for life. Even before the accident, Sean lost himself in such rites of passage as prog-rock, heavy metal, and Conan the Barbarian novels. After the accident, from his hospital bed, he begins developing a mail-order role-playing game (this is pre-Internet) where players plot careful moves in an irradiated future America as they fight to reach a point of safety called the Trace Italian. Named for the star-shaped fortification style trace italienne, this endpoint is the game’s appropriately dynamic name.