Something bad has happened. It was a long time ago, but it was really bad, and Sean's life is now carefully constructed from and around the consequences of that thing.
He's not lonely, exactly. He's not sad, exactly. He's also maybe not reliable, exactly.
While Sean was in the hospital, he distracted himself from his pain by imagining a world, a ruined America in which desperate survivors have constructed one giant fortress, the Trace Italian. The world of the Trace turns into a quest, and several years after his ordeal (or during the latter phase of his ordeal, depending on how you look at it), he is making a meager living running the Trace as a game. Players mail in their turns and he mails their next choices back to them. Their goal is to reach the Trace Italian and penetrate its depths. Sean is pretty sure nobody ever will.
It's a little bit D & D, it's a little bit like the text-based adventure games you could play online in the 80's.
There are two things going on in this book that are really extraordinary. No, there are three.
1. Sean. Sean's accident happened when he was seventeen, deep in that sump that some imaginative kids find themselves during their teen years, when puberty and evolutionary imperative put their minds into hyperdrive.
At seventeen, Sean could see the symbol for a foreign currency and be plunged into a reverie involving conspiracy and lost worlds. He could scare the shit out of himself by talking in a Devil voice. He became fixated, as some kids do, on a fictional character - in his case Conan of all goddamn things - and collected fan music and drew posters and sopped up everything about that character to the point that his parents were concerned.
Ha. Maybe you have to be that kid, or have been that kid, or have the potential to be that kid to really feel how John Darneille has nailed this kid - but he does.
And in Sean's case, he becomes somewhat stuck in time as that kid. After the hospital, he cannot really resume normal life, so he continues to live inside his own head mostly.
2. The reveal here is spectacular. We don't learn what has happened to Sean at the beginning of the book, and nor do we know exactly what has happened to the two kids who came to harm while playing Trace Italian. Drops of information about these events fall at measured intervals - at least, they feel measured - throughout the book, just a word every few chapters.
And it's not like you're on the edge of your seat itching to find out what happened. You know it's awful, but after all it's the aftermath of something terrible that defines a life, and not the event itself, and the book takes place during the aftermath and it's such compelling reading that as these little words about the "accident" plink down you just give a little nod and go, "Oh."
3. Lastly, there is the Trace.
This lonely, dangerous wasteland, this paradise of scant but potent detail, this is a place that rings bells deep within an imaginative reader. Everything in the Trace is in the second person. "You are crouched behind some brush." "You come upon a shack." You must act, you must think, you must self-determine. Will you be cautious? Will you be bold? Will you shoot first?
Maybe we are past making fun of D & D. Maybe we as parents and educators and as a culture have finally figured out that problem-solving in an imaginary world is not a time-wasting activity, and that the kids who do it are not obsessed weirdo virgins. This novel...this novel allows these truths, but still acknowledges that people attracted to this type of play may be more prone to solitude than others. We are all in it, some more than others.
My son Milo (thirteen) has only heard the first few chapters of Wolf in White Van . On CD, in the car, read by the author, who is by the way fucking magnificent - eerie and alone and super-controlled, but so expressive in the brief moments when expression is allowed. I don't think Milo has ever heard anything like it, and even though I rushed ahead and had to hear all the rest of the book, I might listen again just so I can do it with him.
Wolf in White Van made the Alex list of adult books for teens this year, and while I was initially skeptical, I now get it. Not just because of the gaming aspect, but because Darneille captures the teenager so perfectly - the kid so full of feeling and ideas that he is choked by them. It would be good to be that age and learn that this is not an uncommon thing.
At the same time, I've been writing a column on picture books for the Baltimore Sun. I mostly picked books full of sunshine and plants, because - well, just look out your window, everyone from Maine to Texas - you know why I was attracted to these books.
It's simple enough: home is a nest, home is a house in the country, home is an apartment. But home can be a boat. A wigwam. A shoe. And you begin to look a little harder. You notice the fierce girl aiming an arrow at the boy on the tightrope. You start to look for the dove on every page.
You more or less automatically, before she even asks you to, begin assembling backstories for the rosy-cheeked Frenchwoman, or for the band loading out from the Uptown. Are they Todd Rundgren's band? They can't be her husband's band - the Decemberists don't have nearly all that hair.
But she does ask you to. There is a palace with a colonnade and a cupola and a mansard roof protected under a leaded glass dome under a sky rich with stars. "Who in the world lives here?" she wonders. "And why?"
Eventually, after travels to Slovakia, Kenya, and the Moon, we visit Carson's house. We see here worktable, neatly littered with familiar objects - isn't that the Frenchwoman's horn? and where did we see those striped stockings? We are sent careening back through the book, where we notice even more unusual details, moods, and more and more homes.
Home is a fractal of a book, a starting point for journeys, rich fodder for the imagination. It's great for little kids, sure, but lovely for a dreaming teen too. For me, it was the perfect visual accompaniment to Wolf in White Van.