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Wolf in White Van    by John Darnielle order for
Wolf in White Van
by John Darnielle
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2015 (2014)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Sean lives by himself, self-isolated because of damage to his face that is so appalling that most people can't stand to look at him. At one point in the book he has an encounter with teenagers and says, 'People like me prefer teenagers to other people. They are not afraid to stare.' One of them says to him, 'Dude, your face!' Sean is delighted by the reaction and the conversation with these two young people, even adding, 'It's like tire tread.'

We don't know what happened to Sean's face for a long time. He refers to the accident, but as we read more, we learn, little by little what actually happened and how Sean and his family and friends deal with it. At one point several years after his face was destroyed, a doctor and the nurse who comes to care for him during the day both tell him that plastic surgery has learned new ways of rebuilding faces and he would be a good candidate, but the thought of more surgery seems unacceptable to him.

As he was recuperating, Sean developed a new role-playing game that he advertises in magazines, giving the first few moves away free to try to tempt people to play. Each move is mailed to him with a stamped self-addressed envelope in which he sends the next move. The world where people play is set in a futuristic Kansas and western United States that has been ravaged by nuclear accidents, and the players must move through dangerous territory in an effort to get to safety. The idea for the game came to him while he was lying in the hospital, doped up on morphine.

Once he gets a few customers, he starts charging them a small amount per move. The story moves between Sean's reality and the moves in the game, and we meet some of the players. When two teenagers take the game too literally and one of them dies, Sean is sued by the parents, but the remorse and sadness he feels about the teenagers affect him more than the possibility that the parents might win the lawsuit.

Although the novel stays within Sean's consciousness throughout, we never really learn many of his motivations. He is a strange person, both before and after his accident, who always felt isolated and different.

I found this to be a troubling, dark story. Although others also suffer because of Sean's messed-up life, he seems to regard his own trials as much more important. He's not a pleasant person and he's probably better off living in isolation in his made-up world than he would be getting his face fixed and having to face real life.

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