John Darnielle, for all intents and purposes, is one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats. He writes, composes, sings, and plays guitar for all their songs, which are notable for their humorous and heartfelt storytelling. So, I was intrigued when I saw that he had written a book, and moreso when I heard that it had won an American Library Association Alex Award, which is the award given to works of literature that were written for adults but have high appeal to teen readers.
Wolf in White Van is a strange book. Its structure unfolds like the mazes depicted on the book’s cover, a story with layers upon layers. It’s the story of Sean Phillips, an avid sci-fi/fantasy fan who was disfigured in an accident when he was 17. While he was recovering, he began shaping imaginary worlds that he turned into Trace Italian, a role-playing game that is played by snail mail. Players write Sean a letter explaining their turn, and he writes back to them with the story of what happens next. Wolf in White Van is simultaneously the story of Sean, the story of Trace Italian, and the story of some of Trace Italian’s most dedicated players. They’re all the same story, of course–the story of people looking for meaning and connection in the world, trying to create connections between fiction and reality.
Some of my favorite parts of Wolf in White Van were the excerpts we got from the game itself:
Could the map be wrong? No: as the tower rises you see symbols that bear no resemblance to the ones you know will mark the spires of the Trace Italian. Half-scratched pictures, shapes that could be letters, clusters that could be numbers. This is not the bulwark, not the housing that guards the Trace. And still it rises.
I’d recommend Wolf in White Van to anyone who knows what it’s like to get lost in a fictional world, even if only for a little while.