Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: "Wolf in White Van" by John Darnielle

John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van is quirky and cool, tremendously creative and a little bewildering. How's that for a reading experience?

When Sean Phillips was 17 he suffered a disfiguring injury that left him near death. Even years later, people still stop and stare at him when they see him, and he lives an isolated life, practically estranged from his parents, and apart from periodic errands, he sees only his doctors and a visiting nurse who helps care for him.

While Sean was recovering in the hospital, he invented a role-playing game called Trace Italian, which leads people through a dystopian world full of violence, danger, and risk. Played through the mail, Trace Italian and several other games Sean invented have allowed him to live independently and exercise his creativity. But when two teenagers, Lance and Carrie, get a little too involved in the game and bring it into reality, Sean is forced to account for his game, and examine if he in any way encouraged their actions.

As he reflects upon Lance and Carrie's decisions, Sean also examines his life, and how he got to this point. He explores the impact his injury has had on his everyday existence and his relationships with his family and friends, and tries to determine what his future holds.

I'm not sure why, but I guess I was expecting a book along the lines of Ernest Cline's fantastic Ready Player One—a first-hand look inside of a role-playing game and how it affected both those who play and the creator. But while Wolf in White Van does touch on Trace Italian periodically, this is a far more introspective, brooding study of a deeply flawed and troubled yet sympathetic character.

I thought John Darnielle told a great story, and I really liked Sean's character. I just found that the book left me with more questions than answers. I was hoping for more of an understanding of why Sean did what he did (I'm being purposely oblique so as not to spoil the way the book unfolds), and also wished that the book had gone a little more in depth into his interactions with Lance and Carrie.

This is a book that requires a little patience because it takes a while for the story to take hold of you, but it's worth it. While I think people will have different interpretations of the events in the book, there will be little doubt that Darnielle is a great writer, and I look forward to seeing where his career goes from here.

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