John Darnielle is a musician and writer, probably best known for his (mostly one-man) band The Mountain Goats. I honestly thought I had never heard of him until my friend sj asked me to read Wolf in White Van with her. So I looked him up (as I do with new-to-me authors), found out about the band and thought, ‘Huh. That’s interesting.’ I’d was sure I’d never heard of The Mountain Goats before, either. But sj reminded me that I’ve heard a couple of his songs (one in a playlist that she sent to me, heh). I just wasn’t putting it together.
So I asked sj to write a little about John Darnielle because The Mountain Goats mean a lot to her and I knew if I wrote about them, I would just be repeating something I learned from a Google search. Sj wrote:
“I only lived in Arizona for six-ish months in 1997-98, but it took moving there to be introduced to John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats (mostly just JD doing everything in the early years, collaborating with other artists occasionally and for live performances), a band from the same bit of Southern California I’d just left. My friend went on and on about the Alpha Couple (https://themountaingoats.fandom.com/wiki/Alpha_Couple) and made me a tape I lost long ago with all the songs he had (many from bootlegs of questionable quality). I fell in love almost instantly. Those stories and songs, that when you read or hear them for the first time, instantly feel like home? That’s what Mountain Goats were to me. And still are.”
Thank you, sj. Now on to the books…
Wolf in White Van is Darnielle’s first novel, published on September 16, 2014. It was immediately nominated for the National Book Award. It was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, and it won the Alex Award (awarded to books written for adults, but that also have a special appeal to young adults). I am not surprised by any of this. I finished reading WiWV on January 20th, and I’m still thinking about it. I’m still thinking about his second novel, too, but I’ll get to that in a minute. WiWV is about Sean, a guy who developed a (snail) mail-based role-playing game as a coping mechanism to get through the physical and psychological anguish of a severe personal trauma. Eventually he makes Trace Italian his career. When two teens take the game too far, Sean is forced to think back through his life to what started it all. Because it’s all about his memories, the narration in WiWV takes place in Sean’s head and it’s intensely intimate. It feels like reading someone’s diary; it’s very moving and haunting. There’s so much more I want to say, but it would all be spoilers.
Universal Harvester, published in 2017, takes place in the 1990s in a small town in Iowa that still has an independent VHS rental store. Jeremy is one of the store’s clerks and gets pulled into an uncomfortable–and kind of disturbing–situation when people start bringing back VHS tapes saying there is something else recorded on them other than the expected movie. When the owner/boss of the rental store stops coming to work, Jeremy gets himself more involved. And the situation is truly unsettling. I’ve seen a lot of reviews on Goodreads from people who hated this book because they went into it thinking it was a horror/thriller novel. It’s not. Is it creepy? Yes. There are more than a few really chilling moments in this. Did it make me feel uncomfortable? Yes. Did it make me really sad at times? Yes. Is it a horror/thriller novel? Not at all. This is a book about loss and how people cope with or deal with loss in different ways. As with WiWV, I want to say ALL THE THINGS about Universal Harvester, but everything would be super spoiler-y, so I’m not going to do that. I will just say that it moved me as much as WiWV did, but for different reasons and in different ways.
I am really impressed with John Darnielle’s writing and storytelling abilities. I am sure I will be rereading both of these books in the future, and I look forward to reading any new books he writes, too. He is officially on my list of authors to follow.
(Book links lead to the books’ pages on Goodreads.)