Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van
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Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle

Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.

Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of seventeen, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of ‘Trace Italian’-a text-based, role-playing game played through the mail-Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America.

Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, and are explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called on to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tracing back toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.

Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds backward in time until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.


John Darnielle, the musician behind the band The Mountain Goats, is known for his ability to create story within song. In his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, Darnielle proves that his mastery of language is not confined to lyrics.

Already longlisted for the National Book Award, the novel centres on Sean Phillips who was disfigured by an incident early in his life. Sean is isolated from society, mainly communicating with the outside world through a game of his invention, Trace Italian, an analogue game of strategy and survival. Sean began imagining the world of Trace Italian while lying in his hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. When he is finally released, the game becomes his main source of income and companionship.

At the heart of this story lie two mysteries: what happened to Sean in his adolescence to cause his disfigurement, and what became of two ardent players of his game – Lance and Carrie? Lance and Carrie are high school misfits from Florida who find escape in each other and in the world of Trace. But when they take their game play into the real world it is Sean who is held to account.

Wolf in White Van explores the intensity and uncertainty of adolescence and the realities that we can create for ourselves. At times the divide between the real and imagined worlds is almost imperceptible. As the narrative progresses we are taken back in time, closer to the moment of Sean’s disfigurement.

Darnielle’s writing is confident and his characters vivid. The narrative may seem simple but it is handled with a grace and understanding that attest to the story’s depth. The book is complex and dark; Darnielle has created an impressive debut work.

Brigid Mullane is a freelance reviewer.

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