This may not be the inaugural novel you'd expect from “America's best non-hip-hop lyricist” (NYT). At its surface layer, it can be obtuse and inscrutable for anyone who wasn't born in the late 70s or the early 80s. The protagonist Sean grows up in isolation after a self-inflicted gunshot wound disfigures his face, making and operating mail-in choose-your-own-adventure games for similarly disaffected or disconnected people.
On the other hand, there are layers to the novel and structures beneath its skin. Sean's story is shared by Lance and Carrie, two youths who in the maturity of Sean's first game, lose sight of reality and pursue the game into the real world - with tragic consequences. Darnielle steps Sean forward through Lance & Carrie's story while unwinding Sean's past - and here we see the lyricist at work: verse and refrain.
Sean's gruesome incident is the source of his isolation and loneliness and is the seed for Sean's greatest creation: his game, Trace Italian. Trace Italian, in turn, is the vessel from which the tragedy that befalls Lance and Carrie is poured. And to what is this cycle attributed?
This is subject to reader interpretation. Generational malaise, some would say. Holden Caulfieldesque psychosis, others might say. One source, offered poetically rather than dead pan, might be an undercurrent of demonic influence in popular culture.
Sean recalls, prior to his incident, a late-night televangelist program decrying Satan's influence in music - songs played backwards reveal cryptic but evocative lyrics, such as the eponymous “wolf in white van”. This is a tenuous indictment, but indeed is it not similar to the important things in Sean's fragile world? In the final description of his description, Sean is disconnected from his own will; inspired by unknown motivation to use the rifle to some grizzly mischief, is it only by the grace of God that he uses it only upon himself rather than his family? And Trace Italian, his creation that comes to him during his painful recovery - Sean attributes to it a kind of self-determinism that his later creations do not enjoy.
In an elegiac way, perhaps Sean is the unwitting patsy in an eons-old game of chess between a silent God and a meddlesome and quarrelsome devil - a game in which the moves are unilaterally executed by the antagonist.
Wolf in White Van is not a page-turner. I sponsored this novel for my book club and found that it's exactly the sort of book that is profoundly enriched by the thought and discussion around it. If taken at its surface layer only, Sean proves inaccessible to anyone not in the sweet spot of age demographics. I'd recommend this book to the reader searching for something to mull over, to mentally return to as a worry-stone from time to time.