Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

The cover has the author and title in black and white lettering against a sea green background.

by Cherise T.

When a novel is set in the reader’s hometown, appreciation for the story and characters extends beyond the book’s contents. When a novel is set somewhere new to the reader, that place is no longer foreign and unknowable. Literature expands memories, builds connections, creates new journeys, and fosters empathy.

Books by veterans, about veterans, and regarding veterans’ friends and families offer diverse perspectives of consequential events and everyday perseverance. Veterans can, perhaps, find shared experiences. For non-veterans, there are bridges to understanding. Ben Fountain’s depiction of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is unforgettable. To some, an NFL halftime show featuring Destiny’s Child would be entertaining but to this story’s young Iraq War Army soldiers, it’s terrifying.

The cover depicts two soldiers, weapons drawn, seemingly patrolling a desert area with mottled orange sands and sky and a yellow sun at the horizon.

In his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers takes on the burdens veterans face when they return home. Private John Bartle struggles to understand his own behavior in Iraq, as well as his debts and responsibilities to superiors and fellow soldiers. Veterans may relate to Bartle’s emotional efforts to move forward with his life beyond the battlefield. Readers who have never been in the military become immersed in Bartle’s psychological conflicts. He feels surrounded by death as he fights to survive both in Iraq and back home in Virginia.

The cover depicts a white cloud against a deep turquoise sky, with a field rising to a hill in the foreground and just the upper floor and chimney of a house depicted behind the hill, with the United States flag flying in front.

Short story collections offer multiple viewpoints of war in one volume. Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men are Gone focuses primarily on the family left behind, particularly military spouses in Fort Hood, Texas. The stress on these characters exceeds loneliness. Their attempts to cope with deployments are seen in actions as seemingly mundane as a shopping trip to the PX or as drastic as abandoning one’s spouse.

The cover depicts a soldier in fatigues, cap and boots with his duffel bag on the ground beside him, in what appears to be an airport or other waystation with a concrete floor and white tiled walls.

National Book Award winner Redeployment by Marine veteran Phil Klay deftly presents the outlooks of men who entered the military from varied backgrounds. The stories are heavy but often humorous as Klay addresses the absurdities inherent in active duty as well as in the abrupt return to civilian life as a veteran. Often disturbing, the situations encompass violence and PTSD but also forgiveness and compassion.

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.

Wolf in White Van

The book cover has the title in turquoise blue against a white background, the letters forming a labyrinthine maze.

By Ben H.

When I was a child, my mind wandered a lot, and most often it would wander to the dark places, as though drawn there by instinct 

Sean Phillips

I am a huge fan of John Darnielle, the author of Wolf in White Van. He records music as The Mountain Goats and released two stellar albums in 2020. New albums aside, the album that matches best with Wolf in White Van is 2012’s Transcendental Youth; more on that later. 

More pertinent to this review, John Darnielle is an accomplished novelist and a 2020 judge for the National Book Awards. His 2014 novel Wolf in White Van, also available from HCLS as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive, is what this review is really all about. 

Wolf in White Van is kind of a tragic novel filled with darkness, piercing insights, humor, and a lot of unanswered or unanswerable questions. Is Sean Phillips, the protagonist of the book, the titular wolf? That is the question that I kept asking myself after I finished reading it.  

Present-day Sean lives alone. A traumatic event in his past left him disfigured and dependent on daily visits from a nurse. He is self-employed as the creator and manager of a pen and paper role-playing game called Trace Italian. Young Sean hatched the idea for a role-playing survival game that participants play through the mail during his long stay in the hospital recovering from the event.

Players pay Sean to explore his vision of a post-apocalyptic future where they chase the rumor of a safe haven called Trace Italian. Monthly or weekly they send him their moves and he tells them what happens next and gives them options for their next move. Two of Sean’s most dedicated players recently suffered a tragic accident because of decisions they made inspired by his game, and he faces the real-life consequences of their actions.

Young Sean is an enigma. Friends and family demand logic, reason, motivation, and rational explanations for his eccentric behavior, but he can’t provide his family with the answers they seek. The reader follows young Sean through episodes that inexorably move him toward the trauma that will change his life.

The novel has a fuzzy quality. The jumps from the present to episodes in the past keep the reader off-balance. The alternate reality of Sean’s role-playing game adds to the uneasy feeling of the novel. Some chapters jump into Trace Italian and describe how players navigate the harsh realities of Sean’s created world. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns, so I’ll stop.

The novel is the story of Sean, Sean’s family and friends, and the people playing Sean’s game. It is also filled with nostalgia. John Darnielle is a collector. He collects memories and feelings. That feeling you got when you watched static on the TV late at night in a kind of trance? John Darnielle remembers it and writes about it. That weird C-movie you watched on Saturday afternoon when you were a kid and no one else remembers ever existing? He remembers it. In fact, he has a VHS copy around here somewhere. 

I don’t think Sean is a wolf in a white van. I mentioned earlier that Transcendental Youth might be the best album to pair with this book, and I think that is because of a certain thematic cohesion. On the first track, a track named after the late Amy Winehouse, John Darnielle sings:

Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make 
Climb limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive

Wolf in White Van is full of people making choices that are A: hard to understand for everyone else, and B: dangerous or harmful. Darnielle doesn’t celebrate harmful choices, but he does explore life around those choices. Darnielle writes episodes of levity, kitsch, and nostalgia, but overall this is a book filled with more questions than answers and leaves the reader with the feeling that there might not be answers to some questions.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).