Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle's Debut Novel Wolf in White Van

Cultural critics have been debating the virtues and perils of youth-obsessed literature all summer long. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott lamented "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture." Slate's Ruth Graham wrote the screed "Against YA," bashing older fans of young-adult fiction. Both say they fear that the United States suffers from a population whose adolescence might be a lifelong affair.

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John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van, which has been short-listed for the National Book Award, is new fodder for the debate. The novel looks at how the wounds of youth shape adulthood, for better and for worse.

Darnielle, who will be reading from his novel tonight at the Tattered Cover, has been writing songs for decades and performing them under the name The Mountain Goats. In his vision of the world, surviving childhood doesn't come easy. Addiction, self-harm and hospitalization are all steps along life's path, and he sings about each of these issues with poetic dexterity, a heavy-dose of similes and manic glee.

While his subjects of choice are well trod by heavy-handed young-adult authors, Darnielle brings an ecstatic cynicism coupled with a tender affection to the relentlessly resilient and self-destructive characters he writes about. Some songs are three-minute memoirs; others are short stories. Now he has written a novel, and the world is a better place because of it.

In Wolf in White Van, Darnielle continues to explore his obsession with the struggles of the young, but unlike a lot of YA fiction, the novel does so through the eyes of a fully-grown, struggling adult still reeling from the pain of his youth. At seventeen, Sean Phillips, the novel's narrator and protagonist, shot himself in the face and survived. He recovered, in part, because he invented a role-playing game called Trace Italian. To play the game, participants write Phillips for clues that help them navigate the fictional world he built.

The game takes place through the postal system, and the relationships Sean builds are distanced but meaningful, both to him and the players. Two young people, who think that the world he has created correlates with reality, enact their moves in the real world, which leads to devastating consequences and legal complications for Sean.

At its heart, the book reflects on tough questions that artists face. What responsibility do they have over their audiences' actions? What's the relationship between the trauma in a creator's life and the experiences of those he sets out to entertain? What's the relationship between art and survival?

The story of artists whose creations have gone awry is as old as the Bible. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God was the first maker whose invention -- people -- turned out to be more harmful than good. Hence, he wiped most of them out. Frankenstein's creature didn't turn out too well, either. Literature warns us: Making things can lead to devastating consequences.

Sean is a different sort of creator than Victor Frankenstein or God. Trace Italian is the product of his pain rather than pure, utopian creative force. The game is more of a playful self-help strategy that he shares with people like himself, those who are disenfranchised and wounded. It's a job he depends on for a living. It's fueled by boredom and imagination, not reckless grandeur.

"I am only here to provide a service, and my work has brought me pleasure over the years, and I never, ever thought anyone could possibly come to harm from it. If I had thought someone would get hurt because of Trace Italian, I would have shut it down." Sean writes in a letter to the court.

This is not a story about a bold creator willing to wreak havoc on the world around him to fulfill his vision. This is not a story about artistic bravado or hubris; it's much sadder than all that. Wolf in White Van is a story about how one individual's healing process impacts others, in all of its messiness, in all of its glory.

Fortunately, Darnielle does not play judge and jury. He is not a moralist. He has not written about a protagonist who moves forward, taking decisive actions and facing the consequences, winning or losing; instead, the story climaxes not in the present, but in the past, when he pulls the trigger.

This is a story about memory, not morality; it's a testament to the messy will to survive through reflection, not action. And it's poetic, it's mature, and it's the best type of writing about youth; it's not about fake heroism or heightened love affairs; it's not about good winning over evil. It's about the tedium of growing older and the bleak consequences of choosing to live.

Darnielle will read from his novel and sign books at 7 p.m. tonight, at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. For more information, go to the Tattered Cover website.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris