Book Review: PHASES & STAGES

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Wolf in White Van

by John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224pp., $24

Exploring the darkest recesses of imagination provides solace from the abject cruelty of the outside world. If you're a character from Wolf in White Van, you might just decide to stay there. For his sophomore novel, Mountain Goats folksinger John Darnielle spins the tale of disfigured recluse Sean Phillips. As with the author's 2008 entry for the album-appreciation series 331/3, Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, the main character's predicament only reveals itself at a slow but deliberate gait. As his wounds heal and leave him motionless and staring at the ceiling from a hospital bed, he copes with his new internal world by inventing a game called Trace Italian, a mail-based role-playing adventure in which Sean guides each player along a unique path in a post-apocalyptic world of his imagination. When a pair of teenagers act out the game in real life to deadly results, Sean is forced further into his dreamscape. "I couldn't find my way back to the world now: like I was somebody locked in a meaningless side quest, in a stuck screen." Existential agony reverberates throughout Wolf in White Van, the themes dark and bleak, Sean has difficulty just living. "One thing I've learned is it's better sometimes, in the weeds." (John Darnielle appears at BookPeople on Monday, Oct. 6, at 7pm.)

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John Darnielle, Mountain Goats, 33 1 / 2, Black Sabbath

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