I worked in a book store for the last five years and currently work at a library. Despite being surrounded by books, I am a terrible reader. I pick up a ton of books and take them home, but I somehow, until recently, have never been able to make time to read them. So when my favorite songwriter/musician/artist/overall human being John Darnielle released his debut novel Wolf in White Van, I dropped everything I was doing and read. It's an outstanding novel. I'm sure there is some bias in my opinion, as I regularly worship at the man's altar, but it was longlisted for the National Book Award so I can safely assume the novel's merits are legit.
Like many of Darnielle's songs, Wolf in White Van is about an outcast. Sean Phillips lives on the fringe, alone in his apartment with an occasional caregiver there to help because he will never fully recover from taking a bullet to the face. His head is like a horrific mask, drawing stares and revulsion from people who live in the world he is no longer a part of. As he can no longer be a part of society, he oversees and crafts a mailorder role playing game. In the game, players roam a destroyed wasteland en route to a fortress Trace Italian. Sean admits that it is impossible to enter the Trace. Salvation is a carrot on a stick, just as it is for Sean who bears the brutal personification of something horrible and will every day for the rest of his life.
As we learn about Sean's and the nature of his "accident" in reverse through his interactions in the outside world (buying candy from a liquor store, going to renew his business license) and flashbacks to the time before it happened, we are made privy to the tragedy of two Trace Italian players who took the game a step too far which shines a light on our culture's tendency to blame music, video games, and violent movies for the terrible things that people do. Needless to say, the novel is deeply sad. Of course, it's also heartbreakingly beautiful and full of so much soul and every line is like a gift to the reader. As I was reading, I was cobbling together a playlist of Mountain Goats tracks thematically/emotionally/spiritually similar to the text. Here are those songs.
"The Day the Aliens Came"
The intro says it all.
"Never Quite Free"
In my head, this song played every time a tract from Trace Italian (and the tragedy of Lance and Carrie) was depicted. It helps that both the track and Trace Italian are based in the burning ruins of Kansas.