From frontman to author: Frenette reviews 'Wolf in White Van' by The Mountain Goats' lead singer

photo by Lily Frenette

photo by Lily Frenette

Does the name of this author sound familiar? Probably not. He published one novel prior to his latest release, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, in 2008, but otherwise gained no literary notoriety. His name usually becomes familiar when it is mentioned in conjunction with his band, The Mountain Goats. Yes, he is that guy – the lead singer and songwriter – who has been called one of the best lyricists of his generation. Even though Wolf in White Van was just published last month, it has already received a lot of attention and was nominated as a long-list finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction.

Wolf in White Van, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, tells the story of Sean Phillips, the creator of a completely text based, role-playing game called “The Trace Italian.” When he is sued by the parents of one of the players for causing the death of their daughter, Sean begins to reflect on what has led up to this point of his life, namely an incident that disfigured him. All readers are told is that it involved a gun; the rest of the story creates the mystery of the novel.

In the aftermath of the incident, Sean’s imagination flourishes, creating the game that becomes his life. The Trace Italian is a stronghold built in Kansas to protect the few remaining humans on Earth from the radioactive wasteland America has become. Sean receives letters from players explaining how they want to play the game, which he narrows down to a single choice and then mails the consequences of the choice back to them. “The Trace Italian” is Sean’s escape from thinking about his injury, but it is impossible to completely forget something that changes one’s life completely.

Each page is a new piece of the puzzle - explaining Sean’s family, his childhood, the trial, his life in isolation, his interactions with the players, and finally attempting to explain why exactly the incident occurred. As each piece is revealed, readers get closer to the truth of what happened.

Copies of Wolf in White Van can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Powell’s Books. There is also a copy in the library, which will be returned shortly to the shelves and then available for everyone’s reading pleasure. To sum it all up: the story creates a windy path, is told non-linearly, can be a bit confusing, but is completely worth it. Within Darnielle’s prose, readers will be able to hear the lyricism and storytelling that makes his songs so successful. Sean’s story grows with each chapter, until readers feel as if they are the players searching for the Trace, but instead of a fortress, The Trace Italian is the secret of Sean’s life.

by Lily Frenette '18

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.