Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Last summer I joined Camp TOB 2022, my first time with the Tournament of Books summer reading game. I’ve enjoyed reading along and voting in the Tournament of Books for the last couple of years, and I’ve even found a few “new favorite books” as a result. So, I thought I’d give the summer reading game a go. I did find a “new favorite book,” too.

But it was problematic overall. One of the books featured was John Darnielle’s new book Devil House which I really admired, overall. It’s a fictional true crime story that serves in part as a commentary on true crime as a genre. I thought it was thought provoking, suspenseful, a bit scary here and there. I did find a few faults with it, but I was engaged in the story throughout and hopeful for a much happier ending than I got.

So, comes time to discuss the book on Camp TOB’s chat boards…

The first comment out of the block was by the discussion moderator who said that as a man John Darnielle has no right to comment on true crime as a genre because its readers are women. I just wasn’t ready for this particular fight so, although I had thoughts I would have liked to share and questions I would have like to hear answers for, I decided to move on with my life and ended up not participating in Camp TOB. I’m probably gone for good, at least from Camp TOB but I will check out the selections for this year’s main Tournament of Books.

So, I did feel more than a little vindicated when I saw that Devil House has been nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe Award for best novel. Ha! Take that Camp TOB!

Anyway, this is the long way round to get to Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, which I just finished after a marathon reading session this past Saturday.

I’m not sure how this book ever got published. There’s really not much that would appeal to many readers.

The narrator tells his story out of sequence. As a teenager he “accidentally” fired his father’s gun shooting off most of his own face. Years of surgeries and therapy helped him recover physically, but his disfigured face and the mental health issues he faced before the accident have left him a lifelong recluse. The money he makes comes from the mail order role-playing game he began inventing while in the hospital recovering called Trace Italian. Prior to the internet he is able to develop a large following of players two of whom take things too far and end up lost in the desert where one dies of exposure while the other loses most of his limbs to frostbite.

Most readers would find this an unappealing story.

But I was completely caught up in it. Revealing the events of the plot out of sequence keeps the reader guessing what really happened and, to a degree, what is really happening. Enough to make the book a suspenseful read. This structure also makes it possible for the narrator to process his own feelings about his life and the things that have happened to him in a way that I found interesting, like listening in on sessions with a therapist. Fascinating the same way HBO’s series In Treatment was. Was the accident really an accident? How did the narrator come to that point in his life? How can he deal with its aftermath? With his own life?

I was also interested in how the mail order game became both an escape from reality and a way to face it. I confess, in my youth I found an ad for a game like Trace Italian in the back of a Dungeons and Dragons magazine and sent away to join in. I only played for three or four uneventful turns.

Looks like I wasn’t’ the only one.

And it looks like I should give Camp TOB a little more credit for steering me towards this unlikely little book.