cover image Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-29208-9

In his incantatory debut, Darnielle (of the indie band the Mountain Goats) captures the allure and danger of being in thrall to a mythic vision. Lying in the hospital recovering from a gruesome wound, Sean conceives of a mail-based strategy game in a “fury of assembly,” building out an “idle little dream in a small dead space.” In the game’s scenario, players head across an apocalyptic landscape in search of sanctuary at the Trace Italian, a star-shaped fort on the “wasted Kansas plain.” With each successive choice, players find themselves further along a “path than can belong only to them.” Darnielle doles out just enough information about the game to give it texture without stripping it of its mystery. The appeal lies in decoding the landscape, scanning for “little details” that reveal a larger pattern and might eventually allow players to figure out the impenetrable safe harbor. When one young couple’s attempt to find the Trace Italian in real life leads them to a fatal “terminus” in the desert, Sean revisits his own dark history. He tracks back through the branching series of choices that led to his disfiguring injury, the creation of the game, and the couple’s tragic end. Through it all the Trace looms, a monumental symbol for a supple novel. (Oct.)