A World Elsewhere

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

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.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which became an international bestseller and is soon to be released as a movie, was nominated for the 1999 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Earlier this month, A World Elsewhere was included on the 2013 Impac longlist.

Textured narrative

Johnston is a natural teller of complex, textured narratives and in this novel works along the margins of the European fairytale with devices such as a sealskin hat, a vengeful nobleman, the Vanderland castle with its many rooms and narrow passages, and, most telling of all, a loving orphan capable of seeing only the best in everyone. Johnston is interested in buildings and makes clear in an author’s note that the several visits he made to the famous Biltmore, the Vanderbilt French chateau-style mansion in North Carolina, “took hold” of his imagination. He has previously published Baltimore’s Mansion (1999), a nonfiction account of the estate.

In A World Elsewhere it is the castle in the mountains, as both haven and prison, that emerges as the prevailing image.

Landish’s habitual word play evokes Lewis Carroll. All the punning and literary references could become tiresome but do not, such is the fluid beauty of the prose, particularly in the many descriptions of the night sky, stars, shadows, water and ice. Johnston writes very well and is unafraid of balancing the harshness of men with their humanity. Landish, who has been rejected by his father, tricked by his only friend and scorned by almost everyone else, remains alert to the evil done by his father and assumes responsibility for the orphan son of a man left to die in the sea with his subordinates while Captain Druken sailed to safety.

The narrative is sustained not only through a complicated plot but through the mood swings of Landish as he lurches between his own hope and despair as well as the chaos of lies and truths told by others. The grasping Van proves a dangerous friend. Yet rather than lose Deacon, the little orphan, Landish persists in seeking assistance from Van. It finally comes, at a price. Van is an interestingly devious variation of the traditional ogre in his castle, while Gertrude, his wife, is a bold character with her own story to tell. Even Henry James and Edith Wharton have walk-on parts; it is James who most effectively articulates the delusional absurdity of building such a castle.

This is a grand and glorious Gothic romance, an ice palace of a novel.

Populated by larger-than-life characters, it develops into an unconventional quest in which a flawed but likeable hero with a flair for language finds redemption through his love of a loving child and his hard-won belief in a happy ending.

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