So when an Author’s Note at the beginning of A World Elsewhere alerted me to the fact that it was inspired by a visit to the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore estate in North Carolina, I was more than curious. I know Wayne Johnston’s work well (he is a Shadow Giller winner for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams in 1998, a year when the Real Jury preferred Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman). The thing about Johnston is, that while he now lives in Toronto, he was born and raised in Newfoundland. His previous writing is a textbook definition of “Newfoundland” fiction (Joey Smallwood features as a character): What is he doing setting a book on a massive estate in North Carolina?Johnston also increased the risk factor, at least for this reader, in that same Author’s Note by revealing that his wealthy American family would be called “the Vanderluydens, after the Vanderbilt-like Van der Luydens of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence“. Those who are aware of my affection for Wharton can understand that “borrowing” her family, from one of the world’s best novels ever, might not be a good idea.
Despite the Biltmore introduction, however, A World Elsewhere starts on familiar Johnston turf (or rock, I guess) in St. John’s, Nfld.:
Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone.
Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.
He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent father-made fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money.
None of that for Landish, however. He’s a writer, although in five years he has yet to write a word — he carefully burns his output each night. And the implied bargain with his father when he was sent to Princeton was that upon his return to Newfoundland he would take over as captain of the Gilbert, the family’s sealing ship.
“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You stand eye to eye with any horse. Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it could be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”
While his career determination is a problem, Landish has an even bigger one. His father had abandoned his first mate on the sealing ice when the Gilbert was in a blizzard. Francis Carson’s wife was pregnant, but she dies as well — Landish, in a fit of guilt, gives the nuns at the local orphanage $50 and takes over the wardship of Deacon (named after the orphanage, Cluding Deacon).
Things are not going well in St. John’s and that’s when Landish starts looking to the prospects of renewing acqaintances with his best buddy from Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, known as Van.
Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud”.
“My father thinks I am one,” he said.
Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud amongst his children?
But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.
That “big” is building the Vanderluyden estate. Landish and Van did not part on good terms (Van wanted him to help with the planning and building) but a broke Landish, with a child to support, appeals for help — and gets a ticket to North Carolina.
Let’s deal with one of Wayne Johnston’s problems in this novel at this point, an annoying punning that simply does not stop. Here’s an example from Landish and Van’s time at Princeton where they hosted “Lotus Lands literary salons”:
There were three brothers who were known as Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Tiny. There were the Duke of Unwellington, Le Marquis de Malarkey, the Duke of Buxomberg and Sorethumberland.
Or Landish’s name for his mother, Genevieve — he prefers Gen of Eve. Or consider Landish and Deacon’s menu:
“The flatulent are petulant,” Landish said. He could get the boy to walk more often if he could stand to eat cabbage a deux more often.
They had veg-edibles and Dark Marsh Fish. France’s bacon, henglish eggs. Cod au cretin. Black Forest Cram. Dark Marsh Toad. The traditional Easter Rooster.
It was annoying enough that I was seriously contemplating abandoning this novel at the halfway point. And then Landish and Duncan arrive at Vanderluyden and things start to get interesting. The place itself is bizarre (I’d say even the real Biltmore is bizarre); the inhabitants are even stranger. Yet, somehow, Johnston makes it work. The puns keep coming, alas, but a cast of truly strange characters starts to come together.
I won’t say anymore — fantasy novels (with thriller overtones) need to be appreciated on their own. A World Elsewhere may be one of the stranger books that I have read this year, but I can’t say I was disappointed by the experience. It would be wrong to spoil it.