Wolf in White Van


There Is No End

John Darnielle in his novel Wolf in White Van has undoubtedly brought up the issue of trauma and how experiencing trauma can change an individual’s outlook on life and completely alter their perspective on issues that may seem very commonplace to anyone who hasn’t been through a traumatic experience. But, Darnielle also conveys that trauma, mental or physical, is not just caused by an accident or an unfortunate occurrence. Mental trauma, as he shows with Sean Phillips, the protagonist of the story, can strike any individual at any given point in time, regardless of whether they’re been in a physical accident or not. The whole novel is revolved around trauma and the experiences Sean has, highlighting the mental trauma that he experienced internally beginning at the point where he wanted to shoot himself, not actually after he did the deed. The book also depicts the state of mine Sean is in after he shoots himself and the disorientation and detachment that he experiences as he interacts with the world. Roger Luckhurst in The Trauma Question, describes the process that Darnielle has used as the “generation of manic production of retrospective narratives that seek to explicate trauma,” which the author has used perfectly in order to depict Sean’s state of mind.


The first clue about trauma playing an important factor in the book comes from the very first chapter itself. Within the first few pages (5-6) the story jumps from him describing his father carrying him back home from the hospital to him looking at some children play in a park. This continues along the book where Darnielle jumps from one point in the story to the next, without making any smooth transitions or giving the reader a clue about what could be awaiting. This could be him trying to indicate the mental situation of Sean. Clearly, Sean was in a very disorganized and haphazard mental state after the “accident,” (p.115) and was perhaps jumping from memory to memory, only able to recall certain details or not make sense out of some aspects in everyday life. This is Darnielle’s way of indicating how trauma can affect a human’s brain and how that, in turn, could relate to everyday life.


Another aspect of trauma that Darnielle brings out is how in certain ways trauma can impair a person’s sense of time, direction and individuality. The story itself is not in chronological order, instead it is reversed. The story begins from a midpoint in Seans life, a low point where he is amidst a court battle and progresses forward into time, describing his life, how he was as a child, as on p.7 where he imagines himself to be “Conan”, a teenager (p.187) when he talks about his friends JJ, Teague, Tara and Kimmy) and then finally how the accident occurred (p.207). But, as this story is unfolding in reversed chronological order, it is also clear to see that some portions just “don’t seem to fit it”. Sean will start talking about a random story or flip over from a story to talking about the present. This might again be a symbol of his mental condition – how his thoughts and memories flip-flop.


But it is also made clear that Sean’s actual “trauma” did not arise from him shooting himself. Of course the main cause of his disordered life was the accident, but the mere fact that he wanted to shoot his parents, and wanted to shoot himself clearly shows that he was already suffering form some mental form of trauma. This trauma may not have been triggered by a dramatic, drastic change, but it was clearly the onset of all his problems to follow. Sean saying “if I was quick nobody’d even have time to feel afraid or confused,” (p.203) is an indication of the kind of thoughts he was having. Clearly he had thought about killing his parent’s multiple times, how they would feel if they survived it. These are perhaps also the thoughts that he himself is has – he is afraid and confused – maybe about killing his parents, or about life in general, and this is caused by the emotional/mental trauma that he could have experienced.


After the incident, Sean’s decision to create the game Trace Italian also significantly reflects how he chooses to deal with his trauma. Lukhhurst states that, “if trauma is a crisis in representation, then this generates narrative possibility just as much as impossibility, a compulsive outpouring of attempts to formulate narrative knowledge.” This depicts exactly what Sean is doing in his story to find Trace Italian. There is no right path or correct answer, but there are multiple narratives unique to each player, and they are all drafted by a mind mid-crisis. Sean creates a game where players have to work, making significant choices and discover the “Trace Italian” which Darnielle describes as being a “represented shelter” (p.23). Sean imagines his customer’s stories, he imagines how “their faces looked out from the page toward their goal,” and says that was “all he had” (p.23). As a teen, Sean creates this game about finding home, about finding a place to belong. This helps us realize his own mental and emotional condition. After the incident, Sean was hoping to find some place to belong, somewhere he could call home, and somewhere he would enjoy. This is also what he longed for before the incident – all he wanted to feel was welcomed. This was his motivation for creating this game about finding home, he wanted other people to find a safe haven with him, and his game. And the fact that “there is something fierce and starved abut first ideas,” as Darnielle writes, suggests that Sean himself was starving, he was hungry for that sense of belonging, for that sense of being satisfied in his own skin which led him to create this alternate universe where he controls the story: the beginning and the end.


Yet, Sean doesn’t believe in endings (p. 142). He says “For reasons that seem obvious to me, I don’t believe in happy endings or even in endings at all, but I am as susceptible to moments of indulgent fantasy as anybody else.” Which is also the reason why he says “The inside of the Trace Italian… does not exist.” This could be Darnielle trying to show that even though Sean is looking for a way out from trauma, a way to escape it, he knows that it is not real. There is no true escape from the emotions that you experience or the incidences that you encounter that can change your life.


The book ties together story-telling with the perspective a disturbed, traumatized man and relates his experiences to his actions. Darnielle brings out the emotions that are caused by, or that lead to trauma and makes the audience ponder about how different people different view the world completely differently.




Darnielle, John. Wolf in White Van. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Print.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

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