Zack Friedman, Lia Friedman

Wolf in White Van: A Conversation


ISSUE 57 | CRYING WOLF | OCT 2015

The following interpretations are taken from the comments on the song “Up the Wolves” by the Mountain Goats on the website songmeanings.com:

Story of Remus and Romulus. Abandoned by their mother, raised by wolves, founded Rome. It's really about overcoming an obstacle like abandonment.
-Howiemaan on December 31, 2005

I love it when men sing about smashing patriarchy. That's what gives me hope...
pjane on March 06, 2006

I've always seen this one as John and his sister, left to their own devices in the “Rome” of his stepfather's house, and the resentment they must have felt towards their mother for not protecting them from him.
MsMolly on November 24, 2007

I read the chorus as saying, effectively, “our mom hasn't taken care of us since we moved in with our step-father, but when she comes to her senses everything will be OK again.”
reagank on September 05, 2008

Well according to John at a show :

“I'm always trying to figure out what to say about this god *&@# song. Part of me wants to say look it's about revenge, but as soon as I say that... no, that's not quite it. Part of me wants to say it's about the satisfaction of not needing revenge... and i say no, that some new age stuff. I think it's a song about the moment in your quest for revenge when you learn to embrace the futility of it. The moment where you know the thing you want is ridiculous and pompous and a terrible thing to want anyway. The direction in which you're headed is not the direction you want to go, yet you're going to head that way a while longer cause that's just the kind of person you are.”

I love John's attempts to explain his songs :)
ninjacow7on June 02, 2009

This is my favorite song by him. I am getting a better grasp on it now; mentally, the meaning settled on the anger that comes from being raised in an abusive home, with a mother who looks the other way. Emotionally it speaks more volume for me, needing to destroy the way you were destroyed, needing to make the people who pretended nothing was happening feel the confusing despair a small child feels in that situation. For me, the wolf represented the bitter part of myself that luckily has not existed for a long time. In a way I don't associate with the song, because I recognized the revenge as self-destructive and less than what I could be; yet at the same time, it is not quite about any of it. It's incredibly difficult to explain.

But the wolf could be the mother waking up and realizing what is happening, too. Either way, I feel so much more free after listening to this song.
soadrocksk8er4lifeon December 31, 2011

These lyrics are plain and simple. The deception and ways that Satan plans to steal and kill and destroy. Especially in the last days. Which we are in...because Jesus is coming soon. Read the bible. know what's up.
bird1on March 10, 2014

 


 

Siblings Lia and Zack Friedman have been listening to and obsessing over the Mountain Goats – once one guy (John Darnielle) with an acoustic guitar and a boombox, later on something a bit closer to a proper band – together for years. If you catch them unawares, expect to overhear jagged strumming followed by a shout of “hi-diddle-dee-dee, goddamn! The pirate’s life for me.” Last year Darnielle published his first novel, Wolf in White Van. The two of them had to read it, and what follows is a somewhat edited version of their email correspondence.

 


 

LF: Darnielle’s songwriting better encapsulates the teenage experience of feeling misunderstood than any I’ve yet found. The first Mountain Goats song I ever heard—shared with me by my brother on a burned CD when I was about 15 years old—was “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which, as my brother pointed out ten years later, is about kids who could basically be the Columbine shooters. Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van is about the same kind of kid, one who doesn’t make it out of adolescence unscathed, in part because of the adults in his life’s resistance to the kind of art he connects with. His face grotesquely disfigured to the point where he can hardly show it in public – how metal is that? – since a mysterious teenage “incident,” Sean Phillips gets by running a post-apocalyptic role-playing game through the mail, until a young couple, Lance and Carrie, take the game too seriously.

ZF: Let me clarify my interpretation of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” I don't think it’s about the Columbine killers per se, but I do think it was very much written in reaction to Columbine. There’s a valid interpretation of the song in which the protagonists, teenage metalheads Jeff and Cyrus, do commit a school shooting (they “develop a plan to get even”). But we don’t know that. Maybe they idly talk about shooting up somewhere and it’s no more of a threat than naming their band the Hospital Bombers. Maybe not even that. “Up the Wolves,” by the way, is also a song with a revenge fantasy at its core – “I’m going to bribe the officials. I’m going to kill all the judges, it’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage” – but the plot’s too baroque for it to mean literal violence. What I think ”Best Ever Death Metal Band” is really about, and what it shares with Wolf in White Van, is that it’s against the people who think that, like, Marilyn Manson caused Columbine. Darnielle’s in solidarity with the kids who felt suspicion laid on them in the aftermath. His well-crafted, literary works are preoccupied with art that doesn’t resist meaning at all, but puts itself out there, often clumsily or ridiculously so (“prominent use of a pentagram”), and becomes tremendously important for people who feel fucked up or troubled precisely because of the characteristics that might seem cheesy to others. Darnielle is on the side of the weird, lonely or worse kids who obsess over Conan the Barbarian and Black Sabbath because he believes that swords and sorcery are saving these kids, not pushing them to shoot up schools. Sending Cyrus to “the school where they told him he’d never be famous” is much more likely to do him harm. People like that Christian radio host in the novel who plays the record backwards and hears the words “wolf in white van” are the ones with an unhealthy relationship to art, not Sean or Jeff or Cyrus.

LF: Sure, but it isn’t just the interfering adults’ relationship to art, it’s they way they “shake their heads, and wag their bony fingers in all the wrong directions” (“Up the Wolves”). Lance and Carrie’s parents, Sean’s parents, and the Christian radio hosts all seek to explain their teenagers’ behavior by pointing fingers; they never try to understand the teenagers themselves. Darnielle lampoons therapists by showing how Sean is able to supply them with the right answers, while they never penetrate his psyche. “It gets to the point where you almost want to make something up just to keep them happy,” he says. Sean’s mother wants to know “what it means” that he’s listening to music that just sounds like screaming to her after his accident; she’s filled with anxiety about hidden malice in the music. Sean has an art therapist, a music therapist, a talk therapist. None of them are able to do for him what Conan the Barbarian does, and his “religious experience” comes from the semi-pornographic covers of the Gor novels.

Darnielle’s novel brims with people who fruitlessly seek causes. Lance and Carrie’s parents bring a futile lawsuit against Sean, claiming that he caused Carrie’s death. Sean’s parents cut off his only remaining friends because they believe that Sean could not have tried to take his own life without having made a pact with them first. Most absurdly, the Trinity Broadcasting Network show hosts believe that teenage misbehavior is prompted by coded messages in rock and metal, musicians serving as vessels for the devil’s will. The radio show gives the novel its name: playing a record backwards, the hosts discern the phrase “wolf in white van,” though they cannot explain how it incites listeners to evil. For Sean, and for Darnielle, the question “Who made you do this?” is sometimes completely, fatally besides the point. Even writing about this book, you have to choose between the words incident and accident, both of which Sean uses to describe shooting himself. These two words juggle responsibility back and forth between them. An accident: not my fault. An incident: someone to blame. Readers expecting the end of Wolf in White Van to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what made Sean do what he did will be disappointed, although the novel’s narrative structure builds towards it steadily. Darnielle seeks to dismantle the idea that there’s something to be gained from trying to distill motive and meaning out of any given act. Sometimes people act out of impulse and desire, not motivation and plan.

While the parents (and their accomplices, and therapists and everything they stand for) are busy wringing their hands, the children suffer real damage. They’re not crying wolf. Sean shoots most of his face off. Carrie freezes to death in a trench in Kansas. Lance will require serious care for a long time, ostensibly.

ZF: You’re saying that Darnielle sees looking for answers as destructive, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Mountain Goats songs seem to me to have strong elements of affirmation and shared experience. Think about the big crowd-pleasers – “I'm going to make it through this year if it kills me,” “I hope you die, I hope we both die” – songs with highly specific details, some pretty dark stuff, but major-key choruses, ideas of survival and the pleasure in just saying fuck you to the world when at rock bottom. Darnielle’s songs are often quite blunt and derive much of their power from strategically applied bluntness mixed in with more classically “short story” elements of allusion and telling detail, which you get in Wolf in White Van too.

I think the key theme in the novel and the songs is survival, and how the impetus to survive can come from unexpected places. The game isn’t about the destructive nature of the quest for meaning or the dangers of over-identification with art–instead the deferral of narrative resolution is one way to keep going when there doesn’t seem to be anything else. We don’t know what made Sean pick up the gun, what made Lance and Carrie freeze in Kansas, but I don’t think it’s about the irreducible reality of violence in contrast to the falsity of explanation, though the explanations proffered by authority figures are certainly unsympathetic. Instead, beyond the specifics of the novel’s cast, Darnielle is saying some people experience the world as inherently fucked up, don’t feel capable of feeling OK. Maybe it’s incomprehensible, but at the same time, everyone has their cross to bear. As this review argues, a major theme of the novel is an artist confronting his fears. While he believes rationally that his work isn’t harming anyone, against anyone who’d blame a game or a song, but seeing his fans, sometimes he wonders, and asks himself “but what if it does?”—or “what if it needs that sense of danger in order to work?” But I think Darnielle comes down against that: there are people who will criticize you for confusing fiction with reality, but what seems like escapism can be a matter of life and death.

LF: I like how the reviewer, Carl Wilson, phrases it—that the novel “…raise[s] the problem of an artist’s responsibility for his fans’ potential misinterpretations and wild misuses of the work.” You can definitely see this at work in the novel. Look at how Sean describes the TV show: “It was hard to follow, but as near as I could figure it, singers whose hearts were in the wrong place were vulnerable to demonic influence when they wrote. They wouldn’t know when the process started, and it would take hold of them before they knew it: they became emissaries then, messengers carrying sealed envelopes.” Like media-saturated teenagers falling under Satan’s sway, Sean is at the center of a web of messages—his livelihood is made up of SASEs coming in and out of a post office box—and his message is misconstrued by a lot of these so-called adults. His defense of his game—and of himself, to the sort of people who send him “Dear Freak” hatemail— during the trial is also a defense for the music that misunderstood kids listen to.

ZF: I just remembered that Darnielle decided he wasn’t going to play “Going to Georgia” anymore because he felt uncomfortable with the enthusiasm for a song with implications of domestic violence sung from the perspective of the abuser. He said, in response to a fan question on Tumblr,

The issue isn’t “don’t write about horrible things,” that would be infantile. The issue is “don’t romanticize wretched behavior,” especially the kind of behavior that affects who knows how many people a day. The likelihood of somebody hearing Ezekiel 7 and saying “I think I’ll go work for an international crime syndicate as a torturer/enforcer” seems quite slim to me. The likelihood that dudes who romanticize their own stalkiness have heard the narrator of “Going to Georgia” run through his schtick and said “I can dig it! He must really be in love, to be so fucked up!” seems pretty high, on the other hand. I’m at a place in my life where I want all such dudes to know that I am not on their side.

This seems like a different performer-audience problem—he isn’t worried about leading people astray, but about providing justification for the bad things they were doing anyway. Sean struggles with his role in Carrie’s death, but I don’t think he ever puts it in these terms. Should he have?

LF: Well, I think the novel, while concerned with the artist’s relationship to his fans, and how they might misinterpret his work, does absolve him by expanding the ownership of art outwards. One of the biggest takeaways for me from Wolf in White Van was how Darnielle meditates on the ownership of art: Trace Italian, the role-playing game Sean developed and runs, obviously belongs completely to Sean’s mind—the player is always him—and yet it means so much to the devoted fans. The filing cabinet full of mailed-in moves at Sean’s house is a lot like Darnielle’s arsenal of intensely personal, sometimes autobiographical songs. It’s also no coincidence that Darnielle’s entire repertoire focuses on the kind of music and symbolism that’s never going to be hanging in a museum, that in most ways exists solely for its fans.

Sean fixates on Chris Haynes, a player who authored his own suicide in the game in order to withdraw and quit playing, not because Haynes was somehow able to wrest his consciousness out of fiction and return to the “real” world, even though Sean claims, “I felt like his exit proved there was nothing wrong with living in dreams as long as you didn’t let yourself get carried away.” Rather, Sean is compelled by Haynes’s idiosyncrasy, on the joint ownership he asserts over the game. He returns to Chris Haynes over and over again—he even wants to mention him in his statement during his trial. “The main thing is what happens to your vision, how you’re a little different after you’ve seen a few things, and as far as I know, nobody really gets this, though I thought Chris Haynes did once. Something in his overall distrust of the path going forward felt moored to some bigger thing I knew about, something he’d either inferred from the play or known instinctively. But maybe not. It’s hard to say.” When Chris adds his own details to his moves in Trace Italian, the product of Sean’s fever dreams during his hospital stay, it becomes almost unrecognizable to Sean: “I thought maybe Chris was fleshing out his experience and letting me in on the process… These were touchpoints from somebody else’s dream, traces of the fallout from somebody else’s accident.”

Whatever insecurities the author of the game (or the song) might have, particularly regarding his culpability, pale in comparison to his fascination with fans’ devotion. In this way, I think the novel is an incredibly generous gift to anyone who is, or has ever been, a fan. It’s also maybe about allowing music and art to belong to people who are fucked-up and violent as well as fucked-up and sad: Sean’s final point of consolation to Lance and Carrie’s parents is that they were technically right (in the game) to start digging, to do what they did. He’s trying, maybe futilely, to communicate in the language that Carrie and Lance spoke. And of course the lawyers try to prevent him from writing this in his statement.

Speaking of communicating: Think about the title image, Lucifer’s encryption. Maybe the wolf—an agent of hunger, of primacy—in the white van represents… hmmm, a lack of intelligent design. The wolf in the driver’s seat could also be a metaphor for adolescence. The emotional, cultural and economic landscape of the novel is a teenage hellscape or utopia, depending on how you look at it. It’s overloaded with meaning, yet at the same time, it doesn’t mean anything at all. “Wolf in white van” is an awfully opaque message for the devil to go to such trouble to deliver. The 13-year-old Sean is quite taken with the suggestion that the devil has a message to spread. Some force cares enough to reach out, to encode, to ensnare. There’s something very hopeful in that prospect, even if that hope is never answered.


The Hypocrite Reader publishes hard hitting navel gazing, qt shit, deductions, inductions, and abductions. Get us in your inbox once a month.