Over the summer I had the pleasure of reading John Darnielle’s new novel Wolf in White Van. It’s a dark story of a man whose life is ruined by a self-inflicted gun shot wound that leaves him horribly disfigured instead of dead. But this character, Sean, is sympathetic. He is lonely and self-aware and the hours he spends alone in his small suburban house are spent concocting an elaborate mail-order choose your own adventure game that he runs through ads placed in obscure magazines. Sean’s game is called Trace Italian and his invented world is stored in a series of pages stored in filing cabinets that are recalled and copied as players write to him with their next moves. He has essentially built his own video game, meticulously imagining every possible outcome from each decision: a human algorithm. Wolf in White Van will leave you on edge, but in a good way. Like his lyrics, Darnielle’s prose is confrontational.
But this is not Darnielle’s first novel. In 2008 33 1/3 published his odd entry in the series, a novella about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. Darnielle hears Master of Reality through the ears of Roger Painter, a young adult locked in a southern California adolescent psychiatric center in 1985; deprived of his Walkman and hungry for comfort, he explains Black Sabbath as one might describe air to a fish, or love to an android, hoping to convince his captors to give him back his tapes.
Like Wolf in White Van, Master of Reality is the story of a troubled man trapped in a confined space and denied human interaction. Like Sean, Roger is lost in a made-up world, this one happens to be an album of music.
Excerpt from John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, #56 in the 33 1/3 series:
October 20, 1985
It is before wakeups, I am writing in the dark again. Normally on a morning like this I would put on my headphones and just kick back, when I wake up I have music in my head and I like to start out the day that way. Guess not today you assholes!! That was when I got the idea to try to tell you about my favorite tape, which is also my favorite LP, I will explain that later. If you don’t think this is a good way to use this journal then fuck you Gary!
OK so Black Sabbath is a rock band. They are from Birmingham, England. They have been popular since 1970. Although Their first album, is not as popular as their other Albums. It was a less hard album than what they did later. I do not own their first album, which is just called Black Sabbath. But my friend Mike loaned me his copy. I want to give it back to him, but now I am in here so he will have to wait to get it back. Right now it is just sitting at home not doing anybody any good. It is a UXB! I don’t know if you saw this show they had on channel 28 but it was called Danger UXB. It is about soldiers in England who go around finding bombs that are sitting in people’s basements or in subway tunnels. They are UXBs that means “unexploded bombs.” To me the first Black Sabbath album sitting in my house is a UXB because it has not gotten the chance to explode inside my head yet! It’s hard to explain but hey I tried.
The first time I listened to Black Sabbath, was on a rainy day after band practice. I was stoned. You will probably tell my family this, I don’t care. When most of my friends get stoned they say it feels rad but I usually feel kind of weird afterwards. It was like that on that day, I smoked with every body after practice and then I just walked home. When I was getting to the tunnel under the freeway two blocks before my house it had started to rain. Well before I left practice I borrowed the first Black Sabbath album from Mike our drummer because I was looking at the front cover when I was all stoned and it gave me a certain feeling. It wasn’t trying to feel all good and happy but it wasn’t totally weird either. It was like, it was weird but it wasn’t trying that hard. It was like a weird person made it, and showed it to other weird people and they all thought it was good, but if you were not as weird as them then it would look totally haggard to you. We say haggard to mean gnarly in my school.
So I got inside the house, my hair was wet and the rain was coming in through my shoes. My stepfather was asleep in his room because he works the NOC shift from eleven at night until seven in the morning. And I went back to my room, a lot of the pot had worn off because it takes me about an hour to walk home from Mike’s house. And I was just feeling tired. So I put on the record and listened with headphones and it was totally depressing. Ozzy, he is the singer, he was singing about witches and devils and wizards and corpses. But there were barely any stories. Not like in Rush songs where if there is a wizard or whatever, there will be a whole story, like a Robert A. Heinlein book. I have read about three. Those books and Rush songs they all have big stories and lots of things happen and there is some big meaning. But on the first Black Sabbath album, the whole story in the song will be like “There is a wizard and he is going to kill you,” or “There is a devil and you are the sacrifice.” Song after song. Like stories you try to make up around the campfire only you didn’t get enough time to think about your story before it was your turn to tell, so when it got to your turn alls you did was you said everything you had in your mind and hoped it was scary even though in your story nothing really happened.
So on this song called “Black Sabbath,” first song on the album, Ozzy keeps saying “Oh No. No, No. Please God.” That is the chorus of the song more or less. I think it’s supposed to freak you out, but on that day when I was listening it just made me feel like the world was sad. Like, it’s sad to be alive. And that is not normally how I feel when I listen to Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush (different from Rush), or newer bands like Helix, Scorpions, Winger. Normally even the hard music is supposed to sort of take you higher but when I borrowed this album from Mike I knew it wasn’t just the pot, it was like the whole point was “everything is a bummer, even your fantasies are a bummer.”
I hate it when people talk all “la la la drugs changed my life” but when I listened to that song on that rainy stoned day everything changed. My hand is tired so I will write more soon. If you are reading still I will be surprised but if you are I hope you enjoy the Black Sabbath story because telling it is taking my mind off my totally fucked up situation.
Darnielle’s 33 1/3 and the other 99 books in the series are now 33.3% off on Bloomsbury.com!