Wednesday, October 17, 2018 04:20 PM
(Last updated on Wednesday, October 17, 2018 07:37 PM)
Book Report - Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester
 by Fëanor

John Darnielle is better known as the heart and brains of a band called The Mountain Goats (who are great, by the way), but he has also written two novels, both of which are freakish, bizarre, puzzle-like, and completely unclassifiable. The first, Wolf in White Van, is about a man named Sean Phillips with a debilitating disfigurement that he acquired during an incident when he was a teen, an incident which the whole book revolves around. What happened, and why? You will eventually discover the answer to the former question, but the latter is more complex and is never explicitly answered. You have to provide the answer yourself from what you learn of Sean, through a non-chronological series of scenes from various parts of his life, both before and long after the incident. In between these moments from Sean's life are inserted scenes from a post-apocalyptic play-by-mail text adventure game which the main character designed and runs. The game ends up figuring largely in another tragic incident that happens later in his life.

Wolf in White Van is about the secret pain people carry in their hearts and the inexplicable and horrific acts that pain can lead them to perform. It also looks at life as a complex web of interconnected choices, each one shunting you off into a new story. Sometimes every choice is a terrible one, and all you can do is try to choose the least terrible.

Universal Harvester seems at first as if it's going to be a piece of straight genre fiction - namely, horror. Customers of the Video Hut in a small Iowa town in the eighties begin to return movies with odd complaints. They say there are other movies on the tapes. In fact, strange, disturbing footage which seems to involve torture has been spliced into the middle of bland Hollywood fare. And some of the scenes include recognizable landmarks from nearby. Jeremy (an employee of the video store who lost his mother in a car accident some years ago), his father, his boss, and one of the customers of the video store (who Jeremy has a bit of a crush on) are all drawn into the mystery of the sickening, suggestive footage and eventually find its source: a lonely farmhouse, and the lonely woman who lives there, who has her own tragic past.

There are many deeply disturbing and chillingly suggestive sequences in Universal Harvester, and for most of the book you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for a twisted religious cultist to leap forth and start dealing out grisly death. But if that's what you're looking for, don't read this book. What Universal Harvester ends up being about is (like Wolf in White Van) the secret pain that people carry in their hearts and the strange rituals they can find themselves engaging in to try to assuage that pain, to fill the hollow place inside them. It's about the ways people deal with life-destroying losses. It's about the deep and complex bond between parents and children and the awful scars that are left when that bond is suddenly snapped. It's also about the deep currents that can run just underneath the surface in small towns. Although there are plenty of creepy moments throughout, it's ultimately a very sad story about broken people. This does make the book a bit frustrating and disappointing; it feels like you're being promised one thing, and then the curtain is pulled back and what's actually there is something quite different. But it's still a very powerful story masterfully and beautifully told by Darnielle, who has an incredible way with words. Darnielle's books are gorgeous, intricate, grotesque mazes that you have to navigate carefully, lest the minotaur that lurks in them find and devour you.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)



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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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