The Mountain Goats frontman’s debut novel is a dark, nerdy delight. DL Anderson

4. Not that the story itself runs in chronological order. Wolf unspools Sean's story more or less in reverse, revealing how a highly damaged human being got that way. You know this feeling from reading Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, or watching Memento: dread, curiosity, the claustrophobic choking sensation that comes when you realize that you're at the mercy of a rigorous and potentially sadistic god. But it's not that simple; Darnielle isn't a writer in search of a gimmick to exploit, and Wolf isn't some comic-book origin story. The self isn't a direct line from birth to death. We're all mazes inside, with plenty of dead ends and recursive tunnels that cheerfully drop you back where you began. There's no forward or backward or beginning or ending, only what you choose to see and what you keep hidden away from everyone.

3. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Sean is a nerd. After a mysterious incident that forever changes his life, he lives alone in an apartment, guiding hundreds of people through a postapocalyptic mail-based text game of his own creation called Trace Italian. Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard is Sean's prophet, and alienation is his muse. Sean surrounds himself with arcane knowledge and distracts himself by making the disaster-addled America inside his head as real as he possibly can. His most important directive is to strip away reality to make way for the creation of a fictional one; in fact, the way Darnielle chooses to reveal Sean to the reader almost reads as a chronicle of the writing of Wolf in chronological order, a story of a man who narrows his world to the focus of a pinprick, and then has to learn how to crawl out again.

2. But the ending isn't the point. Wolf is structured like a maze, a labyrinth where you expect to encounter the Minotaur's hot breath around every turn. Sean explains his world to us while cautiously avoiding the most important moments and people we want to hear about. Instead, he focuses on the past and the unwanted, noticing what nobody else cares to. "I can hardly believe Cinema Video's still in business," Sean tells us as he visits his local video rental store.

I really can't believe how many videotapes they still have in there, gathering dust against the east wall. But look down toward your feet and they're all right there, neatly piled up in hopeful stacks on the floor... Stacks of dusty VHS tapes automatically register to the eye as trash now, and I'd be surprised if anybody ever took much note of the sign or the hoard it pointed toward.

Of course, Sean can't leave the store without buying four of the most unwanted tapes in all the pile. To him, they're treasure.

1. Mountain Goats singer-songwriter John Darnielle's debut novel, Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), reads like a haunted house. It's haunted by Sean Phillips, a horribly disfigured young man who we meet as he's cradled, helpless, in his father's arms. Readers naturally blossom a concerned primate's sympathy for Sean, but we quickly learn that he's courting an unlovable darkness—he's on trial for the death of a young woman who may or may not have been inspired by Sean's actions. Right from the beginning, Darnielle seems to warn us, this journey will not end well. recommended