Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van tracks backward in time through the life of Sean Phillips, a mid-30s survivor of a horribly disfiguring "accident" who now lives an introspective, hermetic life managing the players in an elaborate mail-order fantasy game he created during his hospital rehabilitation. Advertised in small sci-fi magazines, his post-nuclear-disaster quest is an old-school postal version of the arcade video games Sean played as a kid. Subscribers mail him their moves and he replies with the next level of options. As a recluse whose closest human contacts are therapists and nurses, Sean savors the friendship of his players--until a young couple take the game too literally and suffer permanent catastrophe in a frozen Kansas ditch with "their minds gone past the point of panic to that self-drugged state where everything looks cool."

For his first novel, musician John Darnielle (front man, lyricist and often the sole member of the Mountain Goats; author of a fictional riff on the iconic Black Sabbath album Master of Reality for the 33 1/3 series) has made a story that's labyrinthine but compulsively readable--a Tom Cruise movie with brains. Sean's refreshingly unpretentious and unembittered voice tells of his many tedious months of medical treatment, but gradually he reveals his childhood isolation and fascination with the imaginary world. When Sean finally tells of the night of the "accident" that permanently scarred his face, Darnielle has already neatly pulled readers into his own game and provided a lasting glimpse inside the head of a young man trying to cope. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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