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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Birthday Review: A WORLD ELSEWHERE by Wayne Johnston

Today, May 22, is Wayne Johnston’s 58th birthday.   He is Canadian novelist from Newfoundland who has written nine novels.  I posted my review of his most recent novel, The Son of a Certain Woman, on December 10, 2015:

In honour of his birthday, I’m posting my review of another of his novels, A World Elsewhere:

4 Stars
Landish B. Druken is a struggling Newfoundland writer who adopts Deacon, a child whose father died while sealing with Landish's father. Destitute because he is disowned by his father for not taking up sealing, Landish contacts his one-time friend, the ultra-wealthy Padget (Van) Vanderluyden, for help. Their friendship ended because of a plagiarism scandal in Princeton but their relationship, albeit a toxic one, is resumed when Van "rescues" Landish and Deacon by bringing them to Vanderland, his great American castle in North Carolina. (Yes, the Vanderbilt's Biltmore is the inspiration.)

Landish is totally unsuccessful as a novelist; he made a vow to "'write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived'" (1) but "Landish wrote every night, and every night burned what he wrote because it wasn't good enough" (10). His best stories are those he tells Deacon to explain the world. For example, he explains the duties of a ship's crew: ". . . the men in charge of engines had what were known as 'engine ears,' which meant that they were deaf from the noise the engines made. Also there were pursers who made sure that no one's purse was stolen. There were men called stewards who were in charge of serving stew. And other men called porters who were in charge of serving port" (109). Landish is a drunkard and wastrel, but one cannot but admire his quick wit, and his love for Deacon is certainly a redeeming quality.

Van, on the other hand, is an emotional cripple. He is a totally selfish man who sees people as possessions which he can control with his money. He will stop at nothing to get what or who he wants. In Princeton he devises a scheme to have Landish expelled in the hopes that Landish will then have no choice but to join him as his "'lifelong guest'" (22) in the Vanderland he proposes to build. When the two are eventually reunited, Van tells Landish, "'You may not leave Vanderland for any reason without my permission . . .'" (138). Likewise, he keeps his daughter a prisoner: "'[Godwin] has lived all her life at Vanderland and will not leave it, not even for a minute, until she is twenty-one . . . '" (138). Deceit, bribery and blackmail are techniques he employs with skill.

A major theme is father-son relationships. Van's father rarely spoke to him and treated him with scorn when he did; he even left him only one-tenth of what the other children received. Abram Druken disowns Landish and bequeaths him only a whitecoat hat. It is the relationship between Landish and Druken that seems to be the exception.

The outstanding quality of the book is its prose. Anagrams, puns, rhymes and neologisms abound. Food is a pre-occupation when Landish and Deacon have barely enough to survive; to take his mind off his hunger pangs, Landish makes up food puns: "The Merchant of Venison. Broth fresh from the brothel. A sacrificial lamb was a mutton for punishment. . . . He would write Van and tell him they had dined tonight on Sham Chowder, Lack of Lamb, Crazed Ham and Duck a Mirage. Steam of Mushroom Soup and Perish Jubilee" (52). Landish's description of the stages of life is ingenious: "You go from the Womb of Time into the womb of your mother and from there into the world. The world leads to the Tomb of Time, the place from which no one knows the way back home. . . . [Y]ou passed from the Womb of Time into what he called your birth 'Murk,' which was the interval between your 'commencement screech' and the first moment of your life that you remembered. . . . Landish also told Deacon about Just Mist - the realm of things that at one time were possible but had never happened" (35 - 37).

It is this wonderful prose that makes the book worthy of reading. It is not my favourite of Johnston's books, but I would recommend it for its wonderful playfulness with language.