Usually the image that accompanies one of these posts represents my first exposure to the work of the writer in question. Given the chronology of releases from the band the Mountain Goats, it’s likely that I was introduced to the words of John Darnielle with either All Hail West Texas or Tallahassee, albums that would have crossed the rotation of the college radio station where I took up professional residence in the early years of this millennium. Though I had a handful of compatriots extolling the virtues of his talent, it took me a long time after those initial encounters to completely give in to his songs. Buying into the notion that Darnielle’s vocals were an “acquired taste,” I stubbornly, foolishly refused to really listen to what was there on the recordings. Everything I needed to know about Darnielle’s remarkable skill was right there in the lead track on All Hail West Texas. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is rich with detail that might have a tinge of the comic to it, at least at first aural glance, but it all adds up to beautifully convey the nobility of the discarded outcast, transferring power by respecting the purity of his or her convictions. It doesn’t get more succinct than “When you punish a person for dreaming his dreaming/ Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.”
When the brilliance of Darnielle’s songcraft finally locked in for me, I was irreversibly enraptured. The songs are so resoundingly smart, tender short stories delivered with a hook and a chorus that are miles removed from simple variations on crushes and heartbreak. When Darnielle examines the pain of broken relationships, it is cataclysmic and existentially devastating. And it’s common for a song to be so perfectly, minutely observed that it feels like one of Ann Beattie’s lovely sketches of lives adrift. In one of the Mountain Goats concerts I attended — and I’ve racked up quite a few in relatively few years — Darnielle talked with about the excitement he has to turn everything he learns into a song, a quality that is spectacularly evident on a track like “Grendel’s Mother.” Like any adept practitioner of fiction, Darnielle doesn’t allow the full-scale invention of characters or immersion in other times compromise the valuable emotional depth and authenticity in his work. Maybe the clearest statement I can make about the resonant honesty of Darnielle’s writing is to offer my unshakeable conviction that every seventeen-year-old deserves to have “This Year” at their immediate disposal as a bulwark against the staggering indignities of youth beholden to the destructive insecurities of surrounding adults.
All those qualities gave me greater confidence than I would usually have at the news that a favorite songwriter was trying his hand at a different form of authorship. Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf in White Van, isn’t some mere novelty project, a way for a publisher to use a pre-established fan base as some measure of insurance against the marketplace’s rapidly diminishing interest in the printed word. Grounded in misfit tragedy, the book’s protagonist is a clear spiritual cousin to Cyrus and Jeff, the two kids behind Denton’s top death metal band. As with all those Mountain Goats songs and albums in my collection, the novel speaks to a certain part of me, the embedded, ever-present misplaced soul who knows full well the loneliness of feeling perpetually out of step. (Given my prevailing cheapskate ways, I should note it was the generosity of a dear friend that put the book in my hands and on my shelf.) Those that are virulently discarded need their poets and defenders, too. Hell, they might need them more. We might need them more. As Darnielle sings, “You deserved better than you got/ Someone’s gotta say it sometime ‘cuz it’s true,” adding, “I hope the painful memories only flex their power over you/ A little of the time.” One of my favorite pop culture discoveries of the past year was really a confirmation of a long-held suspicion. I figured Darnielle could give voice to those who needed the most support whether or not he was holding his guitar.
—Doris Kearns Goodwin