White Van Man: John Darnielle brings his novel to Jura Unbound

John Darnielle, the mind behind The Mountain Goats, graces Jura Unbound under his novelist guise – with Mull Historical Society's Colin MacIntyre adding melody. We ponder the gaps his work explores: between childhood and adult life; reality and fantasy.

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 02 Jul 2015
  • John Darnielle

John Darnielle came to Glasgow in 2013 with The Mountain Goats. The dear departed Arches, its dim wide space and subterranean vibe, made the perfect setting for their strange folk rock stylings: a place to retreat from the real world and the city into the odd twilight zone beneath the bridge, to spend an hour or two lost in their dark Americana fairytales. To add to the oddness, the crowd arrived to find the room lined with fold-down chairs, school assembly style. A seated gig is usually in name only – the moment any half decent band hits its flow, no one is staying on their ass – but being locked in knees-to-chair like that kept everyone packed in place and created a whole different tone: like worshippers at temple, everyone took their places and sat up straight while the man at the front spun out tales of hard times and strange occurrences, blurred collusions of fiction and reality. A lesser artist might have been thrown by this, might have struggled to energise a room so primly arranged. John thrived.

Bouncing between songs with an unrelenting energy, filling the gaps in between with jokes and fragmented anecdotes, he magnetised the crowd completely from the first word to an encore in which he dropped the microphone, descended from the stage and walked down through the passage between the pews to finish a cappella. With only the natural power of his voice and its reverberating echo rebounding off the Arches' cavernous walls, the effect was spellbinding.

This same voice will fill the Spiegeltent of Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer when Darnielle returns to Scotland. This time as a novelist. His debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was published last year to critical acclaim and a nomination for the National Book Award. In a way that will be deeply satisfying for fans of his work under the Mountain Goats moniker; it feels a lot like his music channelled into novel form. Specifically, it is a lot like the music's darkest undercurrents, which are often submerged under upbeat rhythms and a kind of manic gleeful irony. However, they are allowed to flow freely and spread across the pages of a book.

Like many of his songs, Wolf in White Van is largely a form of coming-of-age tale. It takes place in the same type of anonymous American small town, a place that feels suburban to everywhere, sitting quietly on the outskirts of the real world. This recurring childhood home is never an entirely happy place: the Mountain Goats tell countless stories of its sleepy stillness being torn apart by alcoholism and abuse, an everyday maelstrom with a small child at its centre doing his best to escape.

This idea of escapism, of fleeing the harshness of the real world to hide within something else, is a central thread that runs through much of the Mountain Goats' extensive discography and into Darnielle's novel. His songs tell tales of young men seeking freedom on the open road and security at the bottom of a bottle, making nods to videogames, horror films, heavy metal and Russian novels as they explore the myriad interests an oddball kid might use to veil himself from the world around him. In his latest album Beat The Champ, it's the world of professional wrestling where he seeks shelter: a small child in a hard and unfair world gazing upon images of Herculean heroes willing to fight for good, able to restore the world to order by force of will and a well-deployed steel chair. In Wolf in White Van, the hero Sean submerges himself in a fictional world of his own creation, drawing inspiration from the Conan books he loved as a child.

Sean, like the heroes of many of the Goats' songs, is reminiscent of a Holden Caulfield raised in a different time and place. He's stuck in the same liminal zone between childhood and adult life, isolated by his inability to fully assimilate into either. Even as teenagers, they both feel a kind of unspecified nostalgia for those even younger days when they were more free to live in imagination, before reality pressed in to colonise more and more of their world. As a kid, Sean could run around all by himself completely immersed in fantasies of Conan, happy enough in his own way and a bother to no one. As we get older, the expectation comes that we'll pull back from imaginary realms and move gradually into the real world.

People like Sean find they don't quite fit in there, that they seem to be a little at odds with everything around them. And as they retreat into what they know – the worlds inside music, games and literature that make sense to them – those around them find them weirder still and the distance grows. For most people the intensity of their fandom is, as Sean's mother puts it after gesturing to the contents of his teenage room, “just too much.”

The protagonists of many of Darnielle's songs are as tormented by abusive step-fathers as Holden Caulfield is haunted by past tragedy. In both cases, their struggle can be more easily understood because it’s anchored in a clear and tangible element of their lives, a horrible thing that has occurred or keeps occurring that makes life hard for them. Sean's disillusionment is harder to place. There's no clear root to his problem and even as the novel unfolds and we learn more about the actual circumstance of his 'accident', we almost understand less about how he feels and why he is the way he is; we only know that he is equally unsure. It's a vague, unplaceable, powerful sense of alienation, the simple sensation of not belonging.

In some ways, this makes his tale more universal. The particular niches he picks to hide in are extremely obscure – Conan-inspired heavy metal and mail-based role-playing games – but Sean's story is essentially about the period growing up when nothing really makes sense. In his 40s now and with kids of his own, Darnielle continues to come back to this alienated feeling in both his music and now prose. He dresses it in the scenery of his own childhood, fills it with the paraphernalia of the fandoms that coloured it, but it’s this deeper, simply human thing dwelling underneath that his work looks to stir.

On the night, under the Spiegeltent’s roof, Darnielle will appear in novelist form to read from Wolf in White Van alongside a talented and eclectic gathering of fellow scribes: Helle Helle, Sarah Winman and Etgar Keret. Colin MacIntyre of Mull Historical Society fame takes charge of all things musical, performing for all those packed into the tent on the night. With his melodies and Darnielle’s words, together they'll take on the coming-of-age conundrum and see if they can riddle it out. And if there are no answers to be found, a summer's night in Charlotte Square Gardens with whisky to hand and music in the air should be a pretty marvellous place to escape to.

John Darnielle takes part in There Was a Crazy Gun, 9pm Mon 17 Aug in the Spiegeltent, part of Jura Unbound