Wolf in White Van (2014) is an attempt to explore, intensely and realistically, the twisted depths of a nerdy teenage outcast's mind. It investigates a related pair of mysteries: how he came to be horribly maimed and why he lives entirely in imaginary worlds. It's interesting, and short, so I don't regret reading it, but I am somewhat mystified by the vast collection of rave reviews that decorates the paperback version I read.
John Darnielle is better known as the songwriter and lead singer of The Mountain Goats. He is famous in that line of work for intense sensitivity to the emotions of social outcasts, and for brutal poetic honesty about everything from love to professional wrestling. I think this book is a sally in the same vein, a brutally honest poetic look at sci-fi nerddom.
Our narrator, Sean, remembers that as a child he often lost himself in Conan fantasies. His Conan, however, was not the honorable barbarian of the books, but a darker and more demonic figure:
When I became Conan things were different; his new birth had left scars. I ruled a smoking, wrecked kingdom with a hard and deadly hand. It was dark and gory. No one liked living there, not even its king. It had a soundtrack. All screams.
He goes on to make a smoking wreck of his own body, and then to devise a post-apocalypse world in which he has reduced North America to a wasted radioactive ruin.
More than half the book is spent describing the play-by-mail game (this is 1990) Sean created while recovering from his "accident." The world is pretty standard post-apocalypse stuff, but some of the settings are imagined in intense detail: you are lying in the long grass by a certain old concrete overpass under a gray Oklahoma sky, now held by sinister men; what do you do? Approach them? Try to sneak around them? Attack them? So it goes, turn after turn, each response from the player generating a page or two of text that explores the consequences of the choice and carries the story along. The goal of the game is to reach a fortress called Trace Italien, within which civilization endures.
Didn't sound like a very fun game, though, because the choices are so limited. Some players write long letters describing their actions, but each turn boils down to choosing one of those two to four options. Nothing like a real role-playing game with its open world and potential for complete surprise.
And I think that is part of the point here: Sean doesn't want any real input from his players. This is his world, over which he rules like a blood-drinking barbarian king. Everything is completely under his control. The main desire he feels toward his own creation – and, it seems, toward everything else – is to frustrate, grind down, burn up, and ruin. It takes a while for the reader to understand the depths of Sean's fury, because his narrator's voice, speaking from many years later, is flat, calm, and nearly emotionless. But eventually you see.
I was a teenage sci-fi nerd once, and far from popular. I have felt at times something of the rage and delight in raging that animates much of our culture, from Death Metal to The Game of Thrones. But as an exploration of "fantasy and its dangers," as one of the reviewers on the back cover puts it, Wolfe in White Van did not impress me. I lived in my imaginary worlds because I loved them; I write books now partly to experience that same sense of dwelling in a beloved place I got from creating my Dungeons and Dragons world when I was 18. For me world-building is something like gardening. There may be dangers to it, as there is danger in anything taken too far, but there is nothing inherently dark about it.
Well, except that it is part of human life, and therefore partakes of the shadows that hang over everything we do.
To me the darkness and danger that Darnielle explores in Wolf in White Van do not come from living in fantasy. Living in fantasy can take many forms, of which blasted apocalyptic ruin is only one. The demonic love of ruination comes from somewhere else.
The Mountain Goats, This Year.