A few weeks ago, John Darnielle came to Green Apple Books in San Francisco for a Q&A and reading of his new novel, Wolf In White Van. The whole time I stood on my tiptoes behind a mass of superfans who had arrived earlier than me, and listened while JD and Robin Sloan discussed D&D, sci-fi, and cassette tapes. The sheer nerdiness of it made me so, so happy.
I’d bought Wolf In White Van earlier that day but had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that John Darnielle’s songs are stories in themselves, and he has an extraordinary ability to create powerful scenes in just a few verses. I thought if this book was anything like that, I’d love it.
It was, and I did.
JD’s novel-writing is just as lyrical as his lyrics are narrative. Somehow he can weave in these incredible images while keeping the writing conversational and real. At the Green Apple event, he talked about how it’s important to him that his sentences sound good when read aloud, and that’s why he would spend hours reading the manuscript to his toddler. I honestly never really thought about that, because besides audio books and readings like this, it’s not too often that you actually hear a book read aloud. But yeah, when he read an excerpt to the audience, it flowed just like a friend telling a (beautifully crafted) story.
“I stood in the kitchen by the window reading the summons; it was so boring. The facts that had brought it into being were the stuff of nightmares, vivid and awful and real, but the thing that came to speak of them was a lifeless sequence of instructions written in a language no one alive even spoke. Nobody talks like that. People only talk like that when they can’t stand to tell you what they mean. I lead a sane and quiet life: the sun shone on the grape-candy purple jacaranda in the breezeway outside, and the oleander and the bottlebrush were in bloom down the walkway, and I felt like I had been suddenly shot out into space, the world I’d left behind terrible and frightening, only now I couldn’t breathe at all. I felt my blood quickly becoming starved of oxygen and my cells beginning to swell, and the stars around me grew brighter and then faded, and then nothing happened at all, and I stood by the window a while longer with the summons in my hand…” – p87
For all its dark and somewhat depressing subject matter, Wolf In White Van somehow isn’t a depressing book. Actually, it’s strangely uplifting. I guess a lot of the Mountain Goats’ songs are like that too: they tell a morbid story with major chords and catchy choruses. Like the Tom Waits quote “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” That’s what I love about this book, and John Darnielle’s music. He recognizes the shitty things in life and turns them into art.