Booked Up

The Man With No Face

A National Book Award winner, Wolf in White Van is a frightening, achingly beautiful first novel.

By - Dec 5th, 2014 11:25 am
Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

This week’s recommended reading hardly fits the holiday mood. It might better befit Halloween — but perhaps it will make a nice change of pace amid all the Christmas cheer. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle is frightening, disturbing, and achingly beautiful. It is a first novel that I will not soon forget.

Nominated for the National Book Award, Wolf in White Van is brilliantly written and well worth the discomfort that may accompany its reading. It is the excruciating story of a young suicide-attempt survivor who is now living his circumspect life with the remnants of a face nearly blown away by a rifle blast.

Sean Phillips was only 17 when he tried to kill himself. He survived and begins to create the shell of a life for himself. Living in an apartment in Southern California, Sean has created a meager business out of archaic role-play games conducted via the post. He lives vicariously through the moves of his customers, until tragedy makes another visit.

The game that Sean is proudest of is Trace Italian, named for a type of star-shaped medieval fortress. Played in an imagined future where players flee an irradiated American landscape and seek the safety of the trace, the game wields a powerful influence. Obsessed fans play for years with Sean responding to each of their moves.

As Sean struggles to make sense of his cursed survival, he sinks deeper into his fantasy world, fueled by the death metal music he blasts day and night. We are brought back to that fateful day in the past when Sean’s decision seemed like his only recourse and we are struck with compassion for all who live in states of pain and torment.

Wolf in White Van gets its title from an anti-rock crusade’s translation of the Devil’s coded message on a record played in reverse. The wolf is claimed to be Satan, but shows itself instead to be the heart of darkness that humans must fight against their whole lives. John Darnielle’s debut novel will touch you with its pain and power and change the way you see the world and its damaged denizens.

Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, December 5 (7:00 PM): Reading featuring LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001. $6-$8, FREE for workshop participants.

Monday, December 8 (7:00 PM): Outwords Men’s Reading Group discusses Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. Call (414) 963-9089. Everyone is welcome to the discussion.

Tuesday, December 9 (7:00 PM): Local author, Kate Funk, presents The Best Cat Book Ever: Super-Amazing, 100% Awesome at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Tuesday, December 9 (7:00 PM): Lesbian Reading Group @ Outwords Books discusses Never Too Late by Julie Blair at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee. New members always welcome!

Wednesday, December 10 (6:30 PM): Book Club discusses Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665

Wednesday, December 10 (6:30 PM): North Shore Library Event with local author Ludmilla Bollow, author of Lulu’s Christmas Story: A True Story of Faith and Hope During the Great Depression at the North Shore Library, 6800 N. Port Washington Road, Glendale. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, December 11 (7:00 PM): Book Release with Anna Vitale, Amaranth Borsuk, and Andy Fitch: As We Know (Subito, 2014) at Woodland Pattern Book Center. FREE.

Thursday, December 11 (7:00 PM): Renée Rosen, author of What the Lady Wants, at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, December 12 (7:00 PM): Mark Slouka, author of Brewster, at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us