Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
by Dave Eggers (Knopf, 2014)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire (Henry Holt and Co, 2014)
THE WORLD HAS TURNED SMALL in our hands. Smart phones and social media are to thank, for allowing us to stand alongside people who are far away, to laugh and mourn as members of a global citizenry.
Thankfully, the truncated prose of social media hasn’t infected fiction to a noticeable degree. While there soon may be novels comprised entirely of texts, or memoirs written in 140 characters or less, the desire for sentences that sing across the page, for dense novels that reach for truth, for books that venture into the territories where art and faith converge, is still relevant. That doesn’t mean our new world hasn’t had an effect on literature. In fact, even the grandest of contemporary novels are infused with the revolutionary connectedness of our modern world.
However, when timeless questions of truth and meaning meet a culture defined by immediacy, we’re left with a potentially troubling ideological standoff. This, of course, is an incubator for significant novels. It is art seeking understanding, the best of which knows that such a venture is married to questions of faith. Regrettably, few choose to swim in these deep waters.
Three recent novels, however, have waded in. John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? and Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridles all confront questions of tradition, isolation, and whether we are ever able to rise above the communities that form us. Each does so differently, but the questions they raise are surprisingly similar: How do we live? Where do we find meaning? And when will we find an answer?
Each year a handful of novels by celebrities—even a few rogue story collections—seem to rise above the white noise of published literature. More often than not, they pass as quickly as they arrive. While John Darnielle may not be a household name, a debut novel by the main creative force behind the enigmatic band the Mountain Goats warrants a pause. Darnielle’s genius for lyrics aside, does the novel stand without the name? Would it receive the same acclaim if it were the debut of an unknown writer? The short answer is yes.
That doesn’t make it an easy read. Wolf in White Van is the story of Sean Phillips, a reclusive young man who seldom leaves his southern California apartment for reasons that are initially mysterious. Darnielle goes out of his way to spin the reader in new directions, intentionally muddying the plot—which isn’t really the right word to describe how this story is put together. At times, the various narratives feel like a loose collection of rabbit trails that never lead to the open field of resolution. Though the novel isn’t stronger for its desultory structure, Darnielle’s prose, and his ability to keep things moving, prevents this from becoming a real problem. If anything, the form pushes the reader further down into Phillips’s world.
At first there is some deliberate coyness about what is actually happening, and as Darnielle slowly leads us to the reveal, this feels contrived. When we learn that Phillips has, at seventeen, intentionally shot himself in the face with a rifle, causing disfigurement and alienation from both his family and the rest of the world, it feels expected. If this moment were the lynchpin of the book, then Wolf in White Van would have failed. Instead, the novel quickly establishes itself as being less about this plot conceit and more about the moments when we’re able to peek outside the cloistered life Phillips has created for himself.
This happens most regularly through the Trace Italian, a game Sean conceived of when he was sitting—partially blind—in a hospital bed and now operates from his apartment. Originally advertised in the back of fantasy magazines, the Trace Italian is a mail-in role-playing game where players send moves to Sean and he responds with pre-written responses. The object of the game is to reach the Trace Italian, a bunker in Kansas where one will be safe from the quickly failing world.
The metaphor is obvious but compelling—enough that the story happening inside the Trace becomes increasingly more interesting than Sean’s actual life. This is unavoidable, as the Trace is Sean’s existence. It is his opportunity to engage with a world that, for the most part, wants him to be a sort of museum piece—something viewed from a distance. “Nobody ever asks me if they can look at my face,” he explains. “Except doctors and nurses, I mean. People do look at it, quite often, but usually only if they can convince themselves that I won’t notice they’re looking.”
The Trace not only allows Sean to function as an all-knowing creator, but also allows him an escape from the reality of his situation: He is lonely, with little hope of interacting with the world in a normal way. He may face criminal and civil proceedings after players of his game were killed trying to live out the fantasy, and he feels constant anxiety over whether the Internet will kill his analog game. The desire to stay inside the narrative of the Trace is thick—for Sean and the reader—and returning to the real world, where people cannot keep themselves from staring and every interaction is colored by when and how long a person’s eyes linger on his wrecked face, is jarring.
At the same time, the limited interactions we do see prompt the reader to question whether society has rejected Sean or he is the one who has checked out. The question is not cleanly answered. Some of the best moments in the novel come when we are ejected from Sean’s head and forced into situations with former high school friends, a girlfriend—even two teenagers smoking in front of a liquor store. With the two boys, we witness what makes Darnielle an exceptional storyteller: his empathy.
“Dude, come here,” said the sandy blond with the mustache. “Not trying to be a dick, just…can I see?” He blew a little smoke and turned his head off to the side as he did it; I saw this as a gesture of deference, of trying to make me see that he wasn’t blowing smoke in my direction. It may have been, though I wonder, that he thought smoke might hurt my skin, which has a fresh-scraped look to it at all times.
The boys ask for, and are granted, permission to openly stare. As they talk in the parking lot, one of the boys—Steve—offers an unexpected moment of grace when he asks if Sean wouldn’t like to look “more normal.” The words aren’t lost on Sean. “It registered with me so suddenly, so immediately. I felt a kind of bliss. I wanted to hold Steve like a child.” Epiphanies in novels are a strange currency—used most often when the writer needs to make a turn—and yet in these two words, “more normal,” Darnielle is able to unlock a character who is dead set on closing himself off from the world—the reader included. Darnielle is confident enough to forget the reader, to let us deal with the hard truth that Sean Phillips is a man crippled by loneliness, and by constant reminders that he isn’t welcome.
But Phillips is as dynamic a character as you’ll find in literary fiction, and at times Darnielle can’t keep him from jumping off the page, as when a younger Sean decides to phone TBN, the stodgy Christian television network, and encounters Carol, a “prayer warrior for Jesus working in Costa Mesa toward the end of the last age, and she was made of sturdier stuff than a young teenager might have guessed.” His original impulse to call came upon hearing that the devil was placing hidden messages in Christian rock albums, which to Sean seems unlikely. Why wouldn’t the devil speak simply—out loud? Why hide in the reverse recordings of an obscure Christian music album? But once he has Carol on the line, instead of asking these questions, Sean freezes and can only bring himself to utter, “Devil.”
Carol, just a weekend operator, gives Sean her best shot at witnessing, and what follows is either comical or sad, depending on your experience with the Evangelical church. “Sean, you don’t have to live as a slave,” she tells him. “Jesus paid the price for you. Will you pray the sinner’s prayer with me now?” Sean tells her he drinks the blood of his slaves and she eventually hangs up. The scene brings Sean’s character to a moment of sudden focus. His connection to the world has always been tenable at best. The difference is that now, after the shooting, he has a reason to keep himself disconnected.
If Wolf in White Van is subtle, Dave Eggers’s new novel—Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?—is nothing but explicit. The highly political book represents a different move for the prolific Eggers who, early in his career, became the poster boy for experimental fiction. Even then it was hard to argue with Eggers’s prose, which has always been sharp, but his last two novels—the National Book Award–honored Hologram for the King and more recently The Circle—represent a move towards a less spastic, more even-keeled approach. They also happen to be two of his better books. With Your Fathers, Eggers shows us he’s a writer who can still experiment, now within constraints. And that might be the best part. Granted, a novel comprised solely of dialogue smacks of gimmickry, and there are times when the strings begin to show—moments where Eggers is forced to work a little too hard to keep the ruse going—but the risk itself is worth noting and, after a few chapters, becomes surprisingly engaging.
The novel opens with the voice of Thomas, a troubled man who has just chloroformed an astronaut and chained him to a post in an abandoned military base. As the man wakes up, Thomas begins to ask him questions. As the novel progresses, more people find themselves chained to similar posts and interviewed in different buildings on the base. The move allows a certain nimbleness to the writing, which could easily stumble if allowed to linger in subjective description. Much of the movement comes from Thomas’s questions, which fire with machine gun speed—Doesn’t that seem insane? A bunch of little towns by the ocean have a SWAT team? In case we get attacked by some army of sea lions? The result is not only tension, but also a certain depraved curiosity about who will next find themselves trapped, and how they fit into Thomas’s corrupted narrative.
To that end, Eggers succeeds in surprising the reader with new characters and new conversations that slowly begin unpacking Thomas’s motives. In Thomas’s mind, this radical course of action is the only one available to him at this point in the history of the world. He is distraught over what he believes is a lack of purpose for people of his generation. “We just spent five trillion dollars on useless wars,” Thomas says. “That could have gone to the moon. Or Mars. Or the Shuttle. Or something that would inspire us….” Without a cause to rally behind, something bigger than himself, Thomas is adrift. He seeks connection, meaning, even if it comes at his own expense. “I used to worry about something happening to me. That I’d be killed in my sleep by some intruder. That I’d be mugged, maimed, drafted, killed. And then the years went by and none of that happened, and what filled that void was far worse.” For Thomas, catastrophe—or at least, the moment to test oneself in the face of a “universal struggle, some cause greater than ourselves”—is the point of living. Without it, an entire generation has been cheated out of its opportunity to fully mature.
The sentiment rings true. It’s a good thing, too, because Eggers makes use of this same lens throughout the novel, taking swings at a wide range of topics—war, police brutality, corporate finance—and landing jabs with great accuracy. However, there are no haymakers—no moments when Eggers unleashes a walloping right that knocks the reader to the floor, fully connecting Thomas’s discontent with one particular grievance.
Perhaps this is intentional. Eggers uses the novel to decry what he sees as the evils of our time. For that reason, pulling the title from the book of Zechariah, a minor prophet, is perhaps more apt than Eggers realizes. Zechariah was concerned with purity—in the temple, leadership, and everyday life. And while his call for ritual purification is by no means the same as Thomas’s systematic kidnapping and questioning, there are prophetic aspects to Thomas’s character, including the not-so-subtle question of whether he is crazy or speaking from some place of informed truth. Even when Thomas is revealed to be more sociopath than prophet, it’s hard to completely convict him.
The reason is simple: the connection he so desperately craves is absent from our daily lives. In a world of increasing transience, where one’s main social interactions may take place online, it might be easy to forget how our community—our connection to one another and the world—marks us, whether we like it or not. Thomas ultimately wishes for “a unity of purpose…some sense of shared sacrifice.” This is the sentiment Eggers comes to again and again, and in Thomas we have a worthy inquisitor who—no matter how our own political or theological leanings may prejudice us for or against him—is only interested in finding out the truth.
More conservative readers will likely balk at Eggers’s politics, but it is a mistake to think of the book as polemical. While it has a viewpoint—and one can’t read more than a few paragraphs without running into it—Eggers seems more interested in questions than answers. Some might see this as a symptom of the novel’s lack of depth, but that feels like too easy a judgment. Instead, Eggers challenges the reader to answer the same questions Thomas poses to each of his captives. You don’t like these answers? Fine. Eggers counterpunches: Then how do you solve the problems? How do you make the world better? How do we live in this place together? His execution may seem trite, but Eggers’s attempt at voicing these questions shows his sense of fiction as a high calling—an attitude that our literary culture could use more of.
Religiosity makes for a convenient foil in fiction, so it’s not surprising to see so many pious characters drawn as “large and startling figures,” in O’Connor’s oft-quoted phrase. From Graham Greene’s Whisky Priest to Barbara Kingsolver’s Nathan Price, the presence of faith in a character’s life can be mined for tremendous effect. And for good reason. The power of faith in literature offers not only the safety of looking at the world from a different perspective, but also the risk of inhabiting the other for a few hundred pages in hopes of seeking understanding, or at least compassion. These are the beginning moves of revelation. However, the line between revelation and blatant gawking is thin—and seldom traveled by most authors, as it requires a degree of care to which few are willing to commit.
Scott Cheshire could have easily avoided this commitment—he no longer associates with the Jehovah’s Witness tradition of his youth. Or he might have written a mocking account of faith, skewering the crazies with his substantial prose gifts. And while there are certainly moments in his debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles, when that temptation runs high, Cheshire never reaches for the easy money. Instead, he presents a story that deeply examines family, faith, and the ghosts of childhood that keep whispering—even when we’re convinced we’ve stopped listening.
Josiah “Josie” Laudermilk is a child preacher who, in the novel’s first pages, stands before a rapturous congregation of thousands and predicts the end of the world. His father—a deacon and zealot in his own right—has long thought Josie is gifted by the Holy Spirit, has somehow been touched by God. As Josie grows older, this doesn’t make for an easy middle school experience, and by all accounts he is friendless (save Issy, who ends up disappearing in a likely abduction) and awkward. But he has this one thing, this gift.
From here, the novel jumps forward across decades to find Josie, irreligious and living in California, in the midst of a failed marriage and business. There’s an immediate nostalgia for the lost time—the good years of faith and abundance. However, Cheshire is right to mostly skip over these moments in favor of the middle chapters of a life—and a vision—that haven’t gone as expected. The unspoken nostalgia gives the story tension, and the reader must contend with longing for a time that, by all accounts, was not happy for Josie. And that’s the power of Cheshire’s work, the ability to force us to see a picture of fervid, perhaps even dangerous, faith at work and mourn its absence in the character’s life. To reckon with its importance.
When Josie is called to visit his ailing father in New York, the scene is starkly drawn: the father, once proud and strong, is languishing and lonely, his wife dead from cancer. Wearing only a loincloth and living in filth, Gill Laudermilk comes close to being a cliché, but Cheshire is deft enough to sense when the camera should pivot. The novel is at its best in these transitions, especially at the beginning and end, when Cheshire catapults the reader out of the main narrative.
The opening is especially powerful, hopping from character to character to paint a picture of not only Josie, but his entire community of faith. We see the derision of his peers, the expectation of his community, the pride of his father. The mix is effortless for Cheshire, who drops sentences that come to the brink of sentimentality without putting a toe over. “Gill thinks of family Bible studies at the dining room table, with warm bowls of popcorn on special nights when Mom’s in a shiny good mood, Who wants butter on their popcorn? I’ll melt it on the stove. Bible-study magazines spread on the table like treasure maps. My father, too, Gill has told them, and his father before him, how long have we waited!” These opening and closing sections are epic in their scope, and not only give us a clue to Cheshire’s full abilities as a novelist, but also a framework for understanding Josie at a spiritual level that most writers don’t normally attend.
At times Cheshire seems to be warning the reader against the fanaticism of his own childhood—and some may extrapolate that as an overarching dismissal of religion. And yet, what makes this novel so compelling is that it shows us not only how some sects of Christianity pervert their followers, but why those who leave—even years afterwards—are still at odds with that separation. That sense of longing, of loss, sets High as the Horses’ Bridles apart from other novels that have tried to paint religious fervor in simple blacks and whites. “I’m not so sure faith is a thing that can ever be lost,” Cheshire writes. “Like every love we have, there’s always remnants deep inside us, in our cells.”
As Josiah struggles to find care for his father—who we quickly learn has slipped into senility—he is forced to finally deal with the loss of his identity. His ex-wife is in a relationship with another man, and his employee and friend, Amad, serves as the only true buoy of sanity in his sinking life. If there’s a misstep, it’s in these subplots. The moments with his ex-wife feel shallow at times and, while a necessary part of the story, Amad never has enough time on the page to really gain equal standing with the Laudermilk family. But all of that is minor, as High as the Horses’ Bridles succeeds not because of flawless writing or any plot reasons, but because of Cheshire’s attention to the importance of faith in his characters’ lives, how it twists and turns from its beginnings, and the way it saves them, even when they no longer believe it can. The bigger achievement is the way Cheshire invites us into the same conversation.
And this is where the novel establishes itself as a work of significance, alongside Wolf in White Van and Your Fathers, Where Are They? Each of these new books attempts to dig us out of—by delving further into—the new, smaller world technology has given us, where our connections are global and instantaneous but superficial, and leave us spiritually isolated and myopic about the things that matter most. These three books not only reflect our condition with eerie accuracy, they also challenge it. In this, their authors belong to the tradition of O’Connor and Dostoyevsky, who each refused to normalize what O’Connor called the “repugnant distortions” of their times. Our culture’s camera is pointed only at the individual, an emphasis that eventually brings ugly and disturbing consequences. A reframing is not only welcome, it’s necessary. We are fortunate to have these ambitious writers with us.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.