What the Mind Scares Up

Fiction and reality in John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van

by Raphaela Posner

published October 24, 2014

I am sitting in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA, admiring the proscenium decorated with Grecian women made of sheet metal. John Darnielle, the driving creative force of the band The Mountain Goats, walks onstage, his brown corduroy jacket falling heavily over his black outfit. Formed in 1991, The Mountain Goats were originally known for homemade, lo-fi recordings. Now, they record with a full band in a studio, but still hold on to the relaxed and genuine style of their original releases. Unlike the last time I saw Darnielle perform, singing songs of the suburban gothic, he walks on stage armed with a book, no guitar in sight.

Darnielle reads from his novel, Wolf in White Van, which made the longlist for this year’s National Book Award nominees. The novel follows Sean Phillips, a game inventor who was heavily disfigured in a violent incident as a teenager. The cause of Sean’s disfigurement is not revealed until the end of the book, when it becomes clear that Sean is a ghostly shell of the man he could have been. Sean creates a game called “Trace Italian,” a role-playing contest set in an imaginary world, played by sending letters in the mail. The world of the “Trace Italian” is a place for Sean and his players to escape into, “some magic pathway back into childhood,” as Sean describes it. Wolf in White Van follows Sean as he attempts to balance between the fictionalized world of “Trace Italian” and the reality of his disfigurement.

Darnielle’s lyricism has long been ballyhooed for its ability to articulate the struggles of suburban life with irony and devotion. His presence on social media is entertaining and thoughtful, updating his fans on Twitter with morsels like “learning that Raffi live-tweets Canucks games is the greatest gift” and “spend enough time alone in a hotel room and learn just how perfectly some Wordsworth poems can be sung to bluegrass tunes.”

Darnielle has journeyed to Brookline to read from Wolf in White Van and speak with writer Tim Horvath, a short fiction writer and winner of the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Fiction. Horvath likes to infuse his own realistic stories with imaginative potential, much like Darnielle himself. Once onstage, Darnielle jumps into reading a portion from Chapter 13 of Wolf in White Van: “‘Friends a long time,’ I said very carefully, very slowly, holding my spasming jaw as still as I could. I wanted to get the r in friend right, but I couldn’t, so I said fend. Who knows what long even came out like.”

In this scene, Sean is speaking to his father about his friend Kimmy, who has frequently visited him in the hospital immediately following his incident. Hearing this passage read aloud, the difficulty of Sean’s speech arrests in a way that doesn’t translate in mere text. As Darnielle reads, his theatricality shines through; his face contorts to mimic the movements Sean’s mouth makes. His voice is nasally, not annoyingly, but in a way that enters my hidden cochlear chambers so I can fully hear Darnielle read, “This is different from calling out into a cave or well; it’s a form of prayer.”


Darnielle’s novel ruminates on the line between fiction and reality, as well as the ways that humans construct our own ideas about what counts as “real.” While recovering in the hospital, Sean creates a fictional universe in his mind. Upon his return to the non-hospitalized world, he turns this imaginary place into a game, Trace Italian,” named for the “star fort” Trace Italienne that first appeared in the 15th century as an architectural form that was thought to be less vulnerable to cannon fire. The star formation made it so that the fort had no blind spots and the lower, thicker walls absorbed the force of cannonballs. The game is played through the mail; players must send four pre-addressed envelopes with their subscription. Sean advertises the “Trace Italian” in magazines, attracting players from around the world. Players must make their way to the sanctuary of the Trace Italian, located somewhere in Kansas. They send in their moves, and Sean sends them the information for that particular choice. Each letter from Sean ends with four choices for the player to make in their next act. The immersive game provides an expected escape for its players. Darnielle says that the Trace Italian of the novel is a way to “merge with the object of contemplation and not have to be yourself for awhile.” Some players find it hard to distinguish the world of the Trace from the real world, a trait that’s both beneficial and detrimental. But for many, the Trace is just a place to explore in parallel to the real world; much in the way we read fiction while moving through our daily lives.

Horvath asks Darnielle how Wolf in White Van was created, and Darnielle thanks him for carefully avoiding the term “creative process.” Darnielle explains that the book originally had many narrators, but eventually he realized that Sean’s voice rang truest to Darnielle’s intentions. Moving the microphone about constantly and sitting with his legs bent at an odd angle, Horvath seems scattered in contrast to Darnielle, whose voice doesn’t waver when answering questions. Horvath asks if Darnielle did a lot of research for Wolf in White Van. “I can do a great hospital scene without having to look much up,” Darnielle said. He was a nurse for a while, before music became his full-time gig. Horvath also spent time in psychiatric wards as a counselor, mainly working with children and adolescents.

Despite the appeal to metafiction of Trace Italian, some of Wolf in White Van is purely autobiographical. It is not just his experience in hospitals that he culls from his own life. The park north of Darnielle’s high school in central California, where he would hang out with friends, inspires the park in the novel, situated north of the high school where teenagers go to smoke cigarettes.

After Darnielle finishes speaking of the ways in which Wolf in White Van mirrors elements of his own life, the conversation continues. Horvath facilitates the discussion, which actually feels more like an interview than anything else. He makes connections between Darnielle’s work and that of Miranda July and Samuel Beckett, but he mainly prompts Darnielle with questions about his writing process and intentions for the novel. One of the best questions Horvath asks concerns which passages were emotionally trying to write. When Darnielle speaks about a scene between Sean and his father, I can feel my stomach tie in the same knots it did when reading of his father’s disinviting him from his grandmother’s funeral. Darnielle says that he wants to make his readers cry, because he likes crying and feels it is a true expression of a piece’s impact on the audience. Darnielle’s ability to evoke unforced emotion, present in his music, still rings true in his prose.


Sean thinks in long, beautifully constructed sentences in the opening chapter of Wolf in White Van. He remembers his father carrying him up the stairs. Sean thinks, “It’s a cluster memory now: it consists of every time it happened and is recalled in a continuous loop. He did it every day, for a long time, from my first day back until what seemed like a hundred years later, and after awhile, the scene blurred into innumerable interchangeable identical scenes layered one on top of the other like transparencies.” These long sentences make it possible to fully enter Sean’s mind and see the world through his eyes, a dive into stream of consciousness thinking. The style of writing allows the reader to relate to Sean, as the reader can immerse herself into his thought patterns.

This is also present in Darnielle’s music, where he explains the nuances of human interactions. “The first time I made coffee for just myself I made too much of it/ But I drank it all just ‘cause you hate it when I let things go to waste/ And I wandered through the house like a little boy, lost at the mall/ And an astronaut could’ve seen the hunger in my eyes from space,” Darnielle sings in the song “Woke Up New” from 2006’s Get Lonely. He utilizes longer phrases to invite the listener into the somber situation, as he does when speaking for Sean.

Darnielle weaves a second, imaginary world by creating a game within the book, itself, of course, fiction. The metafiction of the Trace Italian leads the reader to question the relationship we have to reality, as characters get lost in the new world. Are we escaping into the fictional world of literature just as the players explore the Trace? The blurring of the line between reality and fiction leads to a tragic accident involving a player of “Trace Italian.” The player’s family tries to sue Sean, and he defends the Trace in a pretrial hearing, bringing to the surface the question of whether or not the fictional world is beneficial to those who choose to temporarily lose themselves within it. In Wolf in White Van, Sean says, “It’s a little strange to me, to be defending something that was supposed to have been a place where people could feel safe and have fun, where nothing ever really happened except inside our heads.” Wolf in White Van questions the validity of escapism into a created world. On one hand, the Trace Italian has provided a new world for Sean when recovering from his injuries. On the other, it has torn apart the lives of some of its young players, leaving one of them without sensation in his hands due to hypothermia.

Darnielle’s novel is an internal mediation on the impact of fantasy. His ability to create new worlds is, again, present in his music. The Mountain Goats songs often are small worlds in themselves. In “This Year,” he sings, “I broke free on a Saturday morning/ I put the pedal to the floor/ Headed north on Mills Avenue/ And listened to the engine roar. My broken house behind me and good things ahead/ A girl named Cathy wants a little of my time/ Six cylinders underneath the hood crashing and kicking/ Ahh, listen to the engine whine.” We see the Trace as a way for Sean to escape the hospitals, but also the Trace as a world that has actually swallowed one of its players whole. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred, as players forget which moves take place in the Trace and which take place in real life. Are we responsible if the lines we created are blurred by someone else?


There’s this feeling I get before I talk to someone I admire. It’s like I’m seven years old and scared to jump off the diving board into the pool. It’s an experience that I know I would regret missing out on, but in the moment the possibility of embarrassment looks like the hard surface of the water. I have fictionalized Darnielle, and I forget that he exists in my world until I am standing in line, six feet away from the table where he sits, signing books with a sharpie. Through my speakers in my room he has invited me into other fictional worlds, ones where he seems to sit in the corner and nod knowingly about the small secrets his characters (and I) keep hidden between diaphragm and lungs. I hand my book to him and feel the pitch of my voice raise an octave, as I’m told it does when I speak with people I don’t know. “I saw you in Denver this summer and I’m a big fan,” I say. “Oh yeah, we played the Gothic, right?” he says, and I’m taken aback by how casually he speaks to me, smiling with his closely set eyes. There’s no intention of intimidation from his side of the signing table. To him, this is probably just another easy conversation with a fan while he transcribes my name from the sticky note on the cover page of Wolf in White Van. But the fictional Darnielle I created can no longer exist in the form that he did before I met the real version. I will go home and listen to The Mountain Goats and create a new Darnielle in my mind, one who is friendly and jokes about Aristotle, as I wonder if this version is closer to the real thing.