STARRED REVIEW
October 2014

A gamer’s need for escape

By John Darnielle
Who is Sean Phillips? And how did he end up like this? That’s the central conceit of John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, a compact but wide-ranging novel that follows -Sean’s development from unpopular teenager to reclusive adult.
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Who is Sean Phillips? And how did he end up like this?

That’s the central conceit of John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, a compact but wide-ranging novel that follows Sean’s development from unpopular teenager to reclusive adult.

Sean is the founder of Focus Games, and while he has several works to his credit, he’s best known for Trace Italian. The concept for the game came to him while he was hospitalized after suffering a gunshot wound as a teen. The noise surrounding Sean—both in his head and coming from an endless stream of doctors, social workers and his well-meaning parents—was difficult to block out. To escape, Sean retreated into himself, envisioning a desolate Midwestern landscape and a treasure that beckons.

Upon leaving the hospital, Sean creates a roleplay-by-mail game, which allows him a livelihood even while he hides his disfigured face from the world. Players select their moves and send Sean directives in letters, carefully considering their options even as they become increasingly entangled in the fictional world of his imagination.

Fans of other game-oriented novels, such as Ready Player One, may be drawn to this intriguing tale, as it too focuses on an enthralling game and how it affects both its players and creator. But the parallels stop there. Perhaps mimicking Trace Italian, first-time novelist and musician Darnielle (Mountain Goats) carries readers through a labyrinthine unveiling of events. As he writes, Darnielle peels back layers to reveal Sean’s character, the game’s play and the storylines that have developed around his game. The result is a tale as complex as the songs for which Darnielle is loved.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

By John Darnielle
FSG
ISBN 9780374292089

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