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.
©2014 John Darnielle (P)2014 Macmillan Audio
I'm a teacher and a 30 year reader of genre fiction. Urban and Epic fantasy are my main jams.
Full disclosure; The Mountain Goats are my favorite band and I've been a fan of John Darnielle's lyrics since 2005.
I knew this book would be special. I didn't know if it would be good. Songwriters aren't always able to take that step from lyricist to novelist. I was totally prepared for this to be some quirky little vanity thing that John put out and would have found merit in it just because, but holy God. This book is a stunning character study in frailty, innocence, loss of innocence, the sacred, the profane, the imperfection of family and just life. Read the synopsis yourself if you want to know the plot.
If you ever lived under a roof where the people who made you created their own narrative to believe about you because they can't understand your music, your books or your games. This book is for you.
If the inside of your head and the fantastic world and role you created for yourself there has always been more home to you than home. This book is for you.
If you don't know why you've hurt the way you've hurt for years or why you just seem to makeit worse. This book is for you.
If you are looking for something that gives your answers or even clear cut questions, however, this book is NOT for you.
Whenever an author reads his or her own work, I'm always hesitant. Stephen King can spin a mean yarn, but hearing him read it aloud is like listening to a table saw read the bible. Neil Gaiman is a literary genius, but I literally want to put on PJs and drink warm milk when I hear him. John isn't like either. If you've ever seen The Mountain Goats in person, or heard John in interviews, you know he has a unique cadence and spins some words in odd directions pronunciation wise. Hearing him read this himself is comforting and unnerving at the same time. He knows just how this needs to hit you and hit you it does. I cannot recommend this haunting, beautiful thing enough. Get this. Now.
This book was totally gripping and mysterious and horrifying. It is really well written and I could not stop listening even though the trajectory was a downer of massive proportions. I cannot / will not spoil the book by blathering about the plot. It is good/great and worth a second listening and I don't every listen again. Read by the author and he was great. Too bad he isn't a regular reader.
Wolf in White Van refers to the cryptic phrases supposedly revealed by listening to records backwards, which those of us old enough to get all the pop culture references in this book will recall was one of the big moral panics incited by Christian evangelicals back in the 80s. In one of many scenes described by the first-person narrator, Sean, in this non-linear novel, he actually calls one of those evangelical stations, as a child, during their "prayer hour," to ask about this phenomena.
Of course, the astute reader will also realize that it's a clever reference to the book itself, since it starts at the end and unravels back to the beginning of what eventually lead Sean to the trial with which the book begins.
Sean created a play-by-mail game called Trace Italian, in which the players journey across a post-apocalyptic America searching for a mysterious location called Trace Italian. They send in their moves, and Sean selects a few boilerplate paragraphs from his files, customizes them a bit, and sends them back. It might seem very strange if you never played one of these games. I did play a lot of PBM games back in the 80s and 90s. They were a lot of fun. The Internet mostly killed the industry, of course (the more savvy PBM companies moved to email and web-based gaming), but as Sean tells us, even though he expected the Internet to kill his game as well, he retains a loyal following even into the 21st century, still sending in moves by old-fashioned snail mail. This makes Trace Italian a sort of cult phenomenon, which fits with the events in the book, in which Sean, mostly confined to a secluded existence thanks to a horrible disfigurement, briefly touches the lives of his players and gets glimpses, and more often, speculations, about their diverse outside lives, through the handful of sentences they exchange every couple of weeks in the medium of the game. It gives the entire book the same mysterious, opaque feeling as the game described within the book, in which it's never quite known what is going on, but everyone is drawn in trying to put the pieces together.
In the beginning, we learn that two teenage players of Sean's game tried to play it in real life, apparently convinced that the game was giving them clues to things they could find in the real world. This ended in a sad and tragic fashion, and the parents of one of the teens blamed Sean and sued him.
From there, we go backwards. We know initially only that Sean is terribly disfigured - his voice is difficult to understand, his face makes people look away. Eventually we learn how he became disfigured, but the details, the hows and whys and circumstances, are parceled out bit by bit as Sean continues moving back and forth, from his present existence as the creator of a strange little postal game that gives him a meager supplement to his income, to the events that caused teenaged Sean to become a lonely, disabled monster, events which are echoed in the lawsuit back in his present.
This is an odd, interesting, and clever book, and I'd like to have liked it more. I got all the references - the Conan novels, the science fiction magazines, the PBM games, the Moral Majority and their hysteria about Satanic messages in rock music - and I do appreciate clever and different novels.
But I'm not that impressed by "ambiguous" novels. I don't need everything spelled out for me - I am okay with the author leaving some questions unanswered. But in the end, I still had no understanding of what troubled Sean, what caused him to do what he did, what he was besides an angsty kid with a difficult relationship with his parents. Maybe that is all the author intended me to understand, and he built this short novel about a troubled kid on layers of self-referential narrative devices and cultural easter eggs to be unearthed like the mysteries in Trace Italian. It was an ambitious effort that didn't quite land for me, so I can only give it 3.5 stars, which I will round up to 4 because I'd probably try reading something by John Darnielle again.
I love this little book so much that I'm nervous about recommending it to anyone. I get that it's not for everyone, but it totally worked for me.
Wolf in White Van is a series of disjointed small scenes filled with incredibly specific details. I was not a teenage boy in the 80s and I don't like role playing games, but I know some things about feeling isolated, and Darnielle captures that feeling beautifully. I enjoyed learning about the narrator's past and present through all the small, weird observations, but I didn't expect the ending to move me as strongly as it did. I loved the book even more the second time.
I really thought Darnielle was able to tenderly and fully express ideas and frames of mind that I always believed were inexpressible. The book is effectively about the mind of a storyteller, and that gives it a metatextual quality I enjoyed a great deal, and it made that mode of creation more familiar to me than ever -- I am NO storyteller.
The engaging details that brought the world to life and the world-within-a-world of Trace Italian.
Darnielle's narration was terrific, pleasurable and supple. He has the voice of a singer, not an actor, and treats the words accordingly, sometimes using breath to say much more than is on the page. I think he speeds up toward the end, which was a shame because I wanted to linger more in the book world.
I love the concept of working a story backwards. However, there was no pay off in the story and too many loose ends. The author's tone was dull as well. It was appropriate for the story given the cloud of depression that follows the character. You may enjoy this book if you think the point of life is that life is meaningless and pointless though.
Overall, I hated this book and would return it if I didn't finish the listen all the way through for my bookclub.
I only made it to Chapter Four. Very, very, very dark. So far, continual talk about grave physical impairment. What's to like? I didn't. The narrator-author has a good voice; maybe he should consider training to read, not perhaps write. There are many fans of this book, but I wonder if they are really band-fans.
Wolf in White Van is a difficult, illuminating, stream of consciousness description of the inner life/thinking of a man-boy-teenager who has survived a suicidal attempt - perhaps. There are many questions that this man-boy-teenager asks himself as he narrates his thoughts and feelings in a non-linear series of pasts, futures, and presents.
The story takes place after the “accident”, this being a very unusual beginning or new beginning. The attempt in all its hideousness is so real and present for the man-boy-teenager throughout the story. It’s with him physically, mentally emotionally always. Has he really survived the attempt? There are many questions. Is he his own warrior or devil? Is he the wolf or is the wolf music or is the wolf the world he can’t quite navigate? Is the wolf spiritual or religious? How has his family, friends, community helped or hurt his chances of survival? With mental illness, a third survive, a third stay the same and a third get worse. Music, comic books, gaming and his imagination are all woven with bits and pieces of reality. So many lives are effected: gamers, parents, his friends, hospital staff.
I think the novel is brilliantly written though deeply sad and difficult to read like mental illness or genius. I’ve read that the author worked at one point in an adolescent facility. How many lost and lonely teenagers live with angst, anger, rage, hurt, helplessness, fear, powerlessness? The author has captured this rawness and pain. A painful and plausible story, I know, a thousand years ago (it seems) I survived a teenage suicide attempt.
A lot of things - mainly the fact that the slow moving narrative never caught up with the premise of the book. This should have been a ten hour story. interestingly enough it reminded me of an annotated southern reach book - another trilogy I didn't love.
Longer and more involved. Particularly the aspects relating to the game created by the main character.
No memory here.
None, I would have expanded and added depth.
"A story told out of order by a brilliant lyricist"
Yes, obviously context needed, but the I've contemplated buying a copy for my Aunt.
It isn't complex, it's scattered in the sense that the story is intentionally not told chronologically.
John Darnielle has written a review of the Black Sabbath album "Masters of Reality" which is very similar in a sense.
I wish there was other recordings of books by John. John writes in the same kind of voice as he sings, as such any Mountain Goats fans should check this out.
If you didn't know John is the primary member of the band The Mountain Goats.
I was really attached to this book, there was moments that effected me emotionally.
It's a lovely book, it's worth reading up on the furore over the Judas Priest court case and the Dungeons and Dragons hysteria.
Great book, read by the author and care attention have clearly been paid to the audio production. This is a book that will stay with me.
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