by John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 207 pp.

John Darnielle is drawn to the perspectives of misfits and outcasts in his songs as The Mountain Goats. He is also a fan of heavy metal, writing a critical text on it and formerly blogging about it. Metal is intricately connected to fantasy books and role-playing games, which are generally, to come full circle, the province of misfits and outcasts.

This domain of Darnielle’sextreme disaffection, with a whiff of brimstoneexpands in WOLF IN WHITE VAN, his debut novel. Harrowing but tender, lightly experimental in form, it erects an ingenious interface between harsh reality and harsher fantasy to probe the inner workings of morality, causality and choice. It’s also an unsparing but empathetic portrayal of living with a stigmatic physical disability.

The book’s title comes from a backmasked Satanic message in a fictional metal lyric, but it evokes a still life, which is exactly what its protagonist leads. Sean suffered a disfiguring injury as a teenager. Now a recluse, he runs a text-based role-playing game called Trace Italian by mail. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. where scavengers scour Midwestern wastes for the game’s titular star-shaped fortress.

Excerpts of the game wind through Sean’s story, bleeding into it in ways both figurative and actual. They punctuate his slackened narrative tone with dramatic gaspers: “Inside the shack the first thing you learn is that the astrologer is dead.”

Otherwise, the suspense derives not from what will happen but what already has. Sean’s recollection tacks backward in time, through hospitals and courtrooms and sad domestic scenes, toward the ground zero of his accident.

Darnielle mentioned Borgesand Robbe-Grillet in his INDY interview, and he shares their fondness for evocative absence. Until nearly the end, he withholds the cause of Sean’s injury and the significance of two players named Lance and Carrie. We learn early on that one was badly hurt, the other killed, in some way related to the game.

After his accident, Sean envisions Trace Italian in a hallucinatory scene rendered like Carlos Castaneda writing the Book of Revelation. It would have been pat to make the game solely the result of the trauma, but Darnielle complicates it by sowing bitter seeds in Sean’s childhood. His formative fantasies were of a darker version of pulp icon Conan the Barbarian, who haunts the book like some terrible spirit animal.

Sean’s isolation predated his accident: He grew from a child preoccupied with his imagination into an unpopular teen, friends with another outcast called Teague, with his “[Lord of the Rings] figurines and his bound notebooks bulging with sketches of imaginary mountain ranges or mysteriously numbered dodecahedrons.”

Trace Italian is more like a mail-based Choose Your Own Adventure book than a stats-and-dice game such as Dungeons & Dragons. Sean sends the player a vignette. They write back what they want to do and he parses their answer down to one of several branching paths. This world exists only insofar as Sean has imagined it.

The game reflects Sean’s view that free will and safety are illusionsthat life is a fatal labyrinth. So he creates a maze he can control and see from end to end. There is one safe route, all but impossible to find among the traps and blind falls. The first move sets the rest in motion, as doors slam shut like falling dominoes. The diminishing choices lead to catastrophe, never to the mysterious heart of the keep.

“The Trace Italian, of course, does not exist,” Sean confides. “Technically, it’s possible to get to the last room … but no one will ever do it. No one will ever live that long.” A happy ending is not possible, but outcomes are monitored, losses managed. There’s cold comfort in “imaginary choices that exist on a vast but comprehensible grid.”

Darnielle’s portrayal is entertaining, insightful and explicative enough for those unfamiliar with the arcane context of role-playing games. It’s their best literary treatment since Sam Lipsyte’s story “The Dungeon Master.” The book’s potential audience is broader than its premise suggests, though the obsession with the minutiae of boyhood fantasy could still alienate some. There is a fairly lengthy exegesis of the movie >Krull, for instance.

Roundly successful, Wolf in White Van does have some first-novel rough edges. Those unattuned to the luridly jeweled metaphors of pulp prose may find Darnielle’s subtle appropriation of them burdensome. Like Sean’s contingent style of speaking, it aptly reflects the theme of branching pathsbut not always gracefully.

Sean’s voice is a bit odd, alternately decompressed (you’ll pause to unravel nests of clauses) and abruptly pithy. He’s expansively philosophical but then lands on flat, sweeping negations: People do things for no reason, things happen for no reason, nobody knows much.

Concepts get so big that they become small, or, as Sean has it, “incredibly important in one way and completely meaningless in another.” It’s not entirely clear whether he’s meant to be simple or profound, nihilistic or reverent.

The story drives toward a terrible revelation that returns us to the oracular mode of the opening set piece and clicks the meaning of its obscure imagery into place. This intense, downbeat climax lingers, though we don’t necessarily understand why Sean did what he did.

Perhaps his dark vision of Conan the Barbarian wasn’t just an unusually bleak childhood fantasy, but a forewarning of mental illness. Or perhaps he simply couldn’t see the other options on the board.

“There are only two stories,” Sean determines. “Either you go forward or you die.” Fantasy worlds offer an escape from life but also cast its brutal probabilistic innards, its lack of clear purpose, in an unforgiving light. They ultimately cannot save those who need them most.

After all, Conan has bravely lived through more than 80 years and counting of hopeless scrapes.

But his creator, Robert E. Howard, shot himself dead at 30.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Maze runner.”