Mail Order RPGs, Facial Disfigurement And Hope: A Reading Of John Darnielle’s New Novel

September 16, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

John Darnielle is the lead singer and songwriter of the Mountain Goats, a wordy indie folk band with an obsessive cult following. In addition to being “one of the best lyricists of his generation” (as his book bio generously, but accurately, puts it), Darnielle is also one of the most prolific. His 14 full length LPs are the tip of an iceberg of EPs, singles and countless unreleased tracks which his fans hoard. A few years ago, he published a 331/3 novel on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, a novella from the perspective of a teenager in a mental institution whose cherished cassette tapes were confiscated. Now, with the release of Wolf In A White Van, John Darnielle is finally a published novelist.

At his packed reading last night at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the 47-year-old introduced us to his protagonist. Sean is defined by his face, disfigured in a horrible accident, and his role as master and creator of an obscure mail-in role playing game called Trace Italian. The section we heard last night found Sean recounting his last communication with the only player who ever truly quit the game: Chris, whose letter is both his resignation and final turn. In a few matter-of-fact sentences, Chris buries the body of a fortune teller he’s robbed before slitting his own throat and dying on top of him. The language is utilitarian, the prose of an RPGer, providing a humorous dissonance between the horror of the events described and Chris’ casual style. But despite moments of levity, this is a truly dark story. Darnielle, and John Hodgeman, who hosted the event, described the central conflict of the novel as the choice to either “keep moving or die.”

“Why does Sean keep going?” Hodgman asked Darnielle. “I don’t know, and that is one of the things I’m most proud of,” Darnielle responded. “I didn’t write this book to answer questions.”

The reading was followed a long and silly discussion between Darnielle and Hodgeman, who seemed more interested in making jokes than discussing the novel. They touched on the pop culture Sean loves, and how it influenced Darnielle’s own life: Dungeons & Dragons, Krull, the “proto-MRA” Gor novels by John Pullman and a classic ad for the 1970’s board game Stay Alive (referenced in this Mountain Goats song).

Darnielle’s greatest strength is his ability to take highly specific, often obscure details and turn them into profound, universal experiences. For the final question from the audience, he was given a chance to do just that. John Hodgeman pointed to a long haired kid wearing a Pantera t-shirt in the front row, who asked about the dramatic metal that had played as the author entered the stage earlier in the night. Darnielle, a metal fanatic, jumped into action, musing on the defunct Danish band Mercyful Fate‘s 1984 album Don’t Break The Oath.

King Diamond, lead singer of Mercyful Fate, knew some people found his band ridiculous, Darnielle explained. They sang in falsetto and wore make up. But he took his work seriously, and knew that for all of those who laughed at him, there were others out there for whom his work was deeply meaningful.

“Your dreams are valid,” he said, staring into the crowd with an earnest intensity. Then he smiled, and walked away. (Photo: Sophie Weiner/ANIMALNewYork)