Given the depth of character and perfection of detail that John Darnielle has always brought to his story-songs, it surprised approximately no one that The Mountain Goats mastermind had a full-length novel within him. (Besides, Darnielle had previously penned a novella based on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality for the 33 ⅓ series.) What is surprising is how readily and apparently his songwriting talents translate to the page. And it wasn’t just Darnielle’s devoted cult following shouting the hosannas; on the day it was released in September, Wolf in White Van appeared alongside the august Marilynne Robinson’s Lila on the longlist for the National Book Award.
The novel takes its name from a phrase that seems to emerge from the static suck of a backwards-masked Christian folk song (Larry Norman’s “666,” if you’re curious). Darnielle’s narrator, Sean, hears the phrase while watching a late-night evangelical talk show in his youth, and just as the hosts of the show are scared of but not surprised by the message’s appearance (“The world was full of dark magic,” Sean explains), so too is Sean drawn toward its vague suggestion of lurking, inexplicable violence. Mimicking that static suck, Sean tells his story in reverse, trying—often in vain, though not always—to find something intelligible and logical among the empty sounds generated by memory. And by the time he traces the groove to its horrific beginning, we’ve traveled through a tightly wound, gracefully articulated arc that only makes you want to drop the needle and play again.—Marty Sartini Garner