I was driving Mr F on his nightly ride. The ride usually takes 28 minutes, but as we neared the end of it he wasn't really sleepy, so I took us around a different subdivision, one where on a high curve you can look to your left and see houses the size of resort chalets, giant monstrous cavernous things that tower above the road and have more windows than anyone could need. They're always dark, these houses. You never see anyone in them, not going in, not coming out, not moving around inside. In one there is sometimes a dim glow of the kind of small lamp certain people leave on at night, a 40-wtt bulb that bleakly illuminates framed prints and a set of leather couches. The houses seem too big, so large that they must be inhabited by people larger than those we see on the streets.
On the right, off this curve, is a long dark expanse of forest, sloping away to the nature trails where the boys and I walk, and beyond that, a few houses visible before the vast gulf of Lake Mendota. Off in the distance in this direction far away and tiny is the state capitol, whose dome can just barely be made out glowing white and granite.
There's almost nobody ever out on the roads when we do these drives. We go by car dealerships and through an industrial park where I can see call center jobs' cubicles through windows of rectangular buildings, past the tall glass building where I want to have my office someday, through sleepy suburb streets and past a church, St. Bernard's, where as you sit by the red light next to Roman Candle pizzeria, which burnt the crust the only time we ever ordered a pizza from them, you can see a light from inside the church glowing through the stained glass window and creating a halo around the portrait of St. Bernard's head.
It's that kind of atmosphere that I was in as I listened to Wolf In White Van the past few days. Wolf In White Van is a book made for quiet solitude, for long silences and soft darkness, but after that you will want to turn on all the lights, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, listen to children play... something to wipe away the Jesus God of the story.
Wolf In White Van is narrated by, and is about, Sean, and revolves around two significant events in his life: his accident, which has left his face in such a state as to draw confused stares from children and to make Sean compare himself, eating candy while watching The People's Court, to an octopus feeding; and, second, how a game he created -- a mail order game, in which people write in their turns trying to figure out a role-playing type adventure set in an apocalyptic future -- had inadvertently caused the death of a young girl when she and her boyfriend got carried away and tried to act the game out in real life.
Over and across and back and through those two things, Sean slowly unfolds his story as an unpopular near-loner in school whose head was filled with stories of Conan the Barbarian and terrible images beyond even what he reads in his books, all the way to a future where he sits in his house, supported by insurance money and revenues from his mail-order game, visited once a week by a nurse he calls Victory.
It is as sad and lonely a book as I've ever read, and Sean's story makes no real distinction, in his telling it, between what really happened to him and what he imagines his players doing in the game as they send in their moves: the imaginary world of the game is, he knows, not real, but it was this world that got him through his accident -- that's how he always refers to it, and it's revelatory when he describes the accident-- and the aftermath of it: creating this world in his mind, planning the game, carried him through long days staring at the ceiling of the hospital.
The last half-chapter of the book, though, is truly apocalyptic, and I use that in the most literal sense of the word: an event that changes one's understanding of the world surrounding us, either through changing the world or changing us, or both. Sean details the day leading up to the accident, the slow hypnotic crawl of the day that ended up being a pivotal moment in his life.
There's no sense that Sean hates his life after the accident, nor that he hated it before it: he describes Southern California, just before the accident, as beautiful, scorning the people who scorn it; afterwards, he describes his life in similar terms as the book jumps back and forth.
Wolf In White Van is short on explanations and long on details -- the way life is. Even though much of the book is Sean's internal imagination, it feels more real than similar books about similar people or subjects. In its sheer inscrutable nature, Wolf In White Castle perfectly conveys how it must feel to be Sean, before and after and during these events. It is a chilling, sad, sober book that made me feel bereft at the end, the kind of book where my body didn't quite know how to react. Wolf In White Castle creates an emotion that is hard to explain. Call it incongruous sorrow: a feeling created by a series of events that should not have created that feeling. It's an emotion I suspect all of us have felt at some point, a low point in our lives that should not exist based on everything that has happened, and yet there it is.
The ending of the book made me understand, for just a brief moment, that other people have felt such moments, that they exist for everyone, and that making it past moments like that is part of living. The ending made me feel like I should be crying, but I couldn't because it didn't make sense to cry. It made me feel like I needed people around me at the same time I wanted to be alone. It made me, as I drove along that high ridge and looked at first the dark houses, then the faraway capitol building, then my son starting to doze in the seat next to me, think Jesus God and then be glad that I was only listening to such a moment, rather than living it myself.