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PBR Book Club Reviews Wolf in White Van

The PBR Book Club has been one of the hippest literary clubs around Lawrence for the past 4+ years. Starting in September 2011, the club has met regularly at bars in town to discuss popular fiction works, often pairing up with Read Across Lawrence selections, and their membership has grown by the dozens. As a special year-end treat on In the Spotlight, we wanted to invite this boisterous book club to review their latest selection, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van. Enjoy!


Wolf in White Van is the debut novel by singer-songwriter John Darnielle, best known for his work as the founder and frontman of The Mountain Goats. The novel examines the inner mind of Sean, a reclusive man who suffered from a disfiguring accident as a teen. During his recovery he creates an elaborate text-based fantasy game, Trace Italian. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, where the end goal is to gain access to a safe fortress located in Kansas, the Trace Italian. The game gives Sean structure for his life, and allows him to interact with players from around the world, giving him (he believes) an insight into their lives. When two of the players take the game too far, Sean is forced to examine his own life and reflect on what brought him to this point. Was it his childhood obsession with the barbarian fantasy lands? Or perhaps something on a deeper level?

The novel’s progression mimics the play style of Trace Italian, and the novel often includes passages from the game itself. Key facts are revealed piece by piece, and as in the game, Darnielle emphasizes the long term consequences that individual choices have on all potential future paths. The decisions between available options which are laid out so clearly in the game, are only visible to the protagonist retrospectively.

What We Thought Of It:

As a songwriter, Darnielle is known for his ability to write lyrics with a strong literary bent—short stories in musical form that often involve darkness, emotional pain and fantasy elements. He applies this sensibility to great effect in Wolf in White Van, with lyrical prose used to tell a story that feels deeply personal, and even mimics some details of the writer’s own life.

That’s not to say everyone loved this book. PBR book club members had mixed feelings about the many digressions into the gameplay of Trace Italian throughout the novel. Some found them excessive and skipped them, while others enjoyed these fantastical sections, especially for their setting in and around small towns of Kansas.

Wolf in White Van is a highly internal novel, (most of the book takes place in Sean’s head, hospital room or apartment). It was described as both “existentialist” and “objectivist” at the book club meeting. However, there are a few powerful emotional scenes that do reach through the overall distant tone and affect readers. Particularly, the book hits deep emotional territory in exploring the collateral effect of rash, thoughtless actions, and how families—particularly parents—search for blame or extra meaning outside of themselves in their grief.

Overall PBR Book Club gives Wolf in White Van 4 Tall Boys out of 5.

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