It isn’t often that a book I’ve only just read becomes an instant favorite. I tend to realize just how much I’ve enjoyed a novel only when I find myself recommending it to friend after friend after friend. It is perhaps because I can’t do this with John Darnielle‘s Wolf in White Van that I bonded with it so quickly.
This is not to say that Wolf in White Van is a bad novel or somehow undeserving of its award nominations. Gamers – particularly those who enjoy role-playing games and are either Gen-Xers or older Millennials – will latch onto this title as I did. Its nostalgic appeal doesn’t extend much further, however, so readers who aren’t familiar with RPGs or the 1980s may find themselves in foreign territory.
Wolf in White Van drips with ’80s paranoia over the effects of Dungeons and Dragons – among other “occult” games – on teenage minds. In Darnielle’s novel, the fears of the general public clash with those of players themselves; the suspicion that role-players are in danger of losing touch with reality clashes with the idea that the naysayers may be right. The question of whether or not the narrator’s interests have done real harm haunts the novel. The text doesn’t fall to one side or the other of this fence, leaving the biggest answers open to interpretation.
It’s unfortunate that Wolf in White Van wraps up as quickly as it does. Although it doesn’t neglect to cover anything, because the first 80% of Darnielle’s novel is so carefully developed, the denouement feels rushed and haphazard. There are no real surprises there: what happens is exactly what you have expected.
Despite its few shortcomings, Wolf in White Van is a brilliant first novel, and one that – thankfully – has not been overlooked by the literary community. Pick it up if you’re a gamer, nostalgic for the 1980s, or if you were a kid with dreams and creative aspirations bigger than yourself.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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