A World Elsewhere
Cape, 294pp, £17.99, By Wayne Johnston
Landish Druken is physically big and tends to muse on the large side as well: “I will write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived. It may take me as long as a month, but I will not falter.” But he does weaken, repeatedly. More than five years pass and he has nothing to show, having spent each night burning the pages he had covered the previous day. There are reasons for his failure. As the estranged son of a cruel Newfoundland sealing captain, famed for bringing home a million dead seals, Druken is unhappy beyond words.
Newfoundlander Wayne Johnston’s rich, flamboyant and tragicomic novel, set in the late 19th century, opens with the outcast Druken living in the two-room attic of a house on Dark Marsh Road in St John’s, a kilometre or two from his widower father’s home. The old man has disowned the son he had sent away to Princeton. Captain Druken expected him to follow the family tradition and take to the sea on his return. But Landish wants to write.
Aside from the domestic tension and Landish’s ongoing grieving for his dead mother, he has been wounded by a betrayal that shattered his dreams. Johnston sets the scene in the aftermath of a supposed friend’s treacherous ingratitude. The Landish we first meet is hungry and sober, with only his college clothes to remind him of what he has lost.
Life had, for a time, been better. At Princeton, Landish soon impressed his peers by being formidable and clever. Johnston uses a flashback sequence to establish the platform of lies and deception upon which he constructs his tale of the lonely and the damaged.
While sitting on a campus bench, Landish is approached by Padgett Vanderluyden, thin, weedy and the unloved youngest son of the wealthiest man in the US. “Van”, as he prefers to be called, admits to Landish that he has prepared for this meeting. He wants them to be friends. Their friendship appears to be based on Landish’s intelligence, Van’s wealth and their shared enjoyment of puns.
Together they establish a literary salon. It quickly attracts charges of elitism as well as the wrath of the university authorities. The friends are regarded with suspicion. Landish writes Van’s college essays for him. When this arrangement is detected, it is Landish who is expelled, not the son of the United States’ richest man. Yet it was all part of Van’s plan to keep his friend forever by his side. Van plans to build Vanderland, a wonderful house, the finest in the world, and invites Landish to live with him. But Landish refuses and returns to Newfoundland in disgrace.
Johnston belongs to the Roberston Davies school of Canadian writing, an engagingly erudite literary style that is rooted in history, fact and cross reference, offering a dramatic contrast to the brilliant intimacies of Alice Munro, concerned as they are with family and the respective failures of love and life. Johnston is to date best known for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), which gives a fictionalised account of the life and legacy of Joey Smallwood, the politician who orchestrated Newfoundland and Labrador’s joining of the Canadian confederation in 1949, following a hard-fought referendum the previous year.