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Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Second paragraph of third chapter (practically a short story in its own right):
I'd harbored the Trace concept for a long time - I think I was inspired by a commercial for an old board game called Stay Alive. It starred a bunch of kids playing on a beach; there were no adults around, and waves crashed angrily against rock cliffs nearby. The children pushed or pulled levers on a play-field, opening holes in the board as they did so; eventually all marbles on the board except one would drop out of play, and then the winner would announce, in a breathless voice that suggested he couldn't believe his luck: "I'm the sole survivor!" It held my attention. As a child I wanted everything to be in some way concerned with endings. The end of the world. The last Neanderthal. The final victim. The stroke of midnight. So children playing a game called Stay Alive on a beach with nobody else around, that spoke to something in me, something I'd maybe been born with. Of the many logos for imaginary products I would come to design throughout high school, Trace Italian was the first. I'd gotten the name from dry days in history class during a lesson on medieval fortifications: anything that involved the word star always sounded like it was speaking directly to me. The trace italienne involved triangular defensive barricades branching around all sides of a fort: stars within stars within stars, visible from space, one layer of protection i, front of another for miles. The World Book preferred the term star fort, which I also liked, but in idly guessworking trace italienne into English I'd stumbled across a phrase that had, for me, an autohypnotic effect. TRACE ITALIAN. I would spend hours writing and rewriting the name in stylised block capitals, reticulated line segments forming letters like the readout on a calculator. On notebook paper rubbed raw with erasures, the evolving logo resembled a department store's name spelled out in dots and dashes on cash register tape: RILEYS UNIVERSITY SQUARE. The driving image for my game involved people running for shelter across a scorched planet. There was something on fire in the near distance behind them. Their faces looked out from the page toward their goal. The Trace Italian represented shelter, and it was shaped like a star. That was all I had.
This was one of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award submissions that I put aside to come back to later (coded ν4 at the time). It's not actually science fiction, so wasn't really a runner for the award; the protagonist runs a play-by-mail role-paying game, and is dealing with both the death of one of the players who was attempting to LARP part of the adventure, and his own disfiguring injury caused by a domestic gunshot wound. To be honest I was underwhelmed; the book is essentially an extended character study of a character who is not actually all that interesting or engaging, despite the dramatic events that are being explained. I was also a bit squicked by the rather coyly expressed implication that the self-inflicted gunshot wound which resonates through the narrative was prompted by the narrator's self-loathing after losing his virginity. Yuck.

This was the most popular unread book I had acquired in 2015. Next on that list is So, Anyway..., by John Cleese.

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