Books of 2015, #2: Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

John Hodgman told me to read this.

Well, not directly. But he trumpeted its appeal from his blog, which I read, and so it made it onto my list. Shopping for Christmas presents last month, I slipped a copy into my pile as I’ve recently acquired rather more free time. (Ha, ha.) I read it over the last few days.

It’s solid work. It’s technically Darnielle‘s first novel — he’s mostly famous for being the principal behind the band Mountain Goats — but it turns out his 33 ⅓ book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is rather more than a critical appraisal of the record:

Mr. Darnielle’s publisher is pitching “Wolf in White Van” (the title is a reference to some spooky song lyrics) as a debut novel. But there’s a case to made — I’m willing to make it — that his Black Sabbath book is Mr. Darnielle’s real first novel.

“Master of Reality” is no straightforward critical assessment of Black Sabbath’s album, a sludgy doom-rock classic. It’s fiction that peels thrillingly off into music writing.

The book is written from the point of view of a teenage boy in a mental hospital who explains why Black Sabbath and its lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, meant so much to isolated kids like himself. It’s about how rock music can express not only liberating joy but, conversely and perhaps more importantly, also speak to bottomless misery and pain.

And then, here we are with Wolf, which is also centered on an obsessed, nerdy, isolated teenage protagonist of a certain type. Heavy metal, fantasy literature and games, and social isolation define Sean, at least until they’re joined by the disfiguring accident that cements his isolation and forms the rest of the skeleton on which the book rests.

Wolf in White Van was nominated for the National Book Award, and it should have been. It’s an intense and powerful book, and (I suspect) a personal one for Darnielle. He clearly didn’t suffer the accident that makes Sean a shut-in, but no amount of research could connect a writer so deeply a life like Sean’s — distant or abusive parents, social isolation, and exacerbating the isolation with unconventional interests like fantasy books, heavy metal, and gaming. The Times notes that Darnielle has written before about his abusive stepfather, and no one writes a 33 ⅓ book about a record they don’t love. Darnielle is clearly of a certain tribe (as am I), and his book is an honest story even if it isn’t wholly his. But that’s what fiction is, right?


One thought on “Books of 2015, #2: Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

  1. I’d love to get to this one but it may be a while before I can since I have a lot to read on my plate….multiple good Algonquin ms’s from favorite authors but wouldn’t you know it, the wife had to bring home a new David Wellington zombie novel and I can’t very well pass that up.

    Anyway, my friend Bill Verner who introduced me to the Mountain Goats was the one who told me the 33 1/3 book was actually a novel. Hipper reviewers have noted this too. The MG album (and MG is pretty much all Darnielle) Sunset Tree details his stepfather’s abuse. My favorite of their albums are Tallahassee (horrifyingly sad, like a white trash Dick Yates novel), We Shall All Be Healed (the kids are fucked up), and All Hail West Texas (worth it for “The Best-Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” alone). Note that the first two are done with a full band, while the third is all acoustic home recordings with lots of hiss. If you have not checked these out, I highly recommend them. I think they’d be right up your alley. Their output since has been of spotty quality, though Heretic Pride does have the great rock song (they occasionally throw one of those in to fool you) “Lovecraft In Brooklyn.” Get thee to the record store or iTunes.