John Darnielle Reads to a Packed House at Parnassus

John Darnielle reads at Parnassus Books.

John Darnielle reads at Parnassus Books.

By my count, over 150 people packed into Parnassus books Thursday evening for a reading of Wolf in White Van, a new novel by Mountain Goats leading man John Darnielle. I’ve only read the first chapter, having just bought it, but I’m already hooked on the narrative voice that is both inviting and lonesome–a characterization that I suspect will apply to the protagonist, Sean Phillips, as well.

Here’s what I gather from the reading: the narrator, Sean, who was disfigured in his youth, creates a correspondence role playing game that blurs the edges of fiction into the landscape of his isolated reality. The game is successful on different levels–in popularity and in the solace it provides Sean. But the confluence of fantasy and reality doesn’t stop in the imagination of its creator. It becomes real to two of its players, with dire consequences.

I’ll issue a brief disclaimer: I’m not familiar with Darnielle as a musician. Perhaps because of it, I didn’t have high expectations. I find a lot of contemporary prose to be self-congratulatory, repeating its best phrases and metaphors until they lose their significance and sacrificing complexity for style. Darnielle read from two sections of the book. While it’s usually quite difficult to follow a reading that begins in the middle of a novel and is not preceded by an introduction, I found myself quite drawn into the prose. Sometimes tangential, it occupies the whole of Sean Phillips’ mind, but not at the expense of the plot. Darnielle knows how to withhold information and how to dole out the lines that make you pause.

In the Q&A that followed his reading, he showed an ease interacting with the audience that reminded me that he’s used to being in front of a crowd. Admitting that “being a writer was my first real dream,” Darneille shared that he was “freaked out” when he received the news that Wolf in White Van is on the long list for the National Book Award. Based on the questions asked, fans seemed to want to draw a connection between Darnielle the songwriter and Darnielle the novel writer, but the artist said that he puts up walls between the two: “I want the two things to be discreet,” he said. It’s interesting that he wrote the last chapter first and then worked backwards to figure out how it got to that place. “The book is a tracing back to a moment,” he said, “which is something I do a lot.” When writing songs, the artist said he always works from beginning to end. Where a finishing a song packs an “immediate punch,” writing a novel is more like sculpting, he said.

Wolf in White Van is already receiving rave reviews. All 17 copies have been checked out at the Nashville Public Library, and 16 more have been ordered. Read an excerpt published in Vice. Listen to his intense interview with Mark Maron on WTF.

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