When Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere opens, it’s the Gilded Age – Mark Twain’s satirical coinage for the era of unrestrained greed and political corruption in late-19th-century America – in Manhattan and on Rhode Island. But on Dark Marsh Road in St. John’s, one of the road’s Wilde-ish wits, Landish Druken, lives in exile in a two-room attic under “terms of the Sartorial Charter” (his father has disowned him, but allowed him to keep the clothes he wore at Princeton). Expelled from his college prior to graduation for disreputable conduct, Landish tries to make good on his parting riposte: “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.” More writher than writer, he darkens pages every night with ink and then blackens them further in the stove: After five years, he has yet to write a single word for which he can resist his impulse to set afire. But oh what a tumult of oracular wordplay he pours into ears that stray his way!
In Princeton, the dearest ear belonged to Padgett (Van) Vanderluyden, the youngest son and “dud” of the wealthiest man in America. At a weekly salon in the house they shared with Van’s personal bodyguard, Landish had done his best to be an enfant terrible while “VanPun” passed off Druken’s best witticisms as his own. On Dark Marsh Road, the only person who any longer cares what Landish says is Deacon, a small boy adopted by Druken at the request of the child’s mother.
Now that circumstances have grown so dire that Deacon is about to be removed by the authorities, Landish turns to Van for help and they’re invited to live at Vanderland in North Carolina. In an Author’s Note, Johnston writes that he “was inspired to write A World Elsewhere after a series of extended visits to … Biltmore [George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre estate in the mountains outside of Asheville, N.C.] which took hold of my imagination … and have attempted to recreate its eccentric, enigmatic grandeur … as it was originally created by two of the greatest architects of its time, Richard Morris Hunt … and Frederick Law Olmsted.” Although he draws on “the historical existence of George Vanderbilt, his wife, Edith, and their only child, their daughter, Cornelia … the actions, words and thoughts of the[ir] counterparts … are fictions.” In calling his family “the Vanderluydens,” he admits to squashing Edith Wharton’s “Van der Luydens” of The Age of Innocence.
Not surprisingly, in a novel that turns upon lies and deceits, Wharton and Henry James make cameo appearances at Vanderland, but the author most in evidence (if only in the kind of “heard bits and scraps” of Alice in Wonderland that famously inspired James Joyce) is Lewis Carroll. Both Druken and his creator use anagrams, portmanteaus, puns, malapropos and neologisms as keys to unlock secret lives, longings, betrayals and revenges. When tutoring Deacon, Druken is both a headmaster of the school in Alice, where the pupils are taught “reeling and Writhing … and … the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision,” and Alice’s hardboiled Through the Looking Glass Humpty Dumpty philosopher.
It’s here, in the dodgy language of love and affection and irreligion that this whirligig of a man shares with a wisp of a boy, that A World Elsewhere comes most fully to life and closest to lived experience. Johnston is most joyously himself, and least like any other novelist writing today, until man and boy leave Newfoundland and are affronted by Vanderland’s eccentricities, enigmas and grandiosities. Unless one shares the author’s enthusiasms for the architectural follies of plutocrats, and the sociopathology that supports them, revellers in Johnston’s absurdist streak will feel that the Carrolling at the heart of Druken’s critique of crass warfare between fathers and sons is played down in favour of piecing together and picking apart too many storylines.
Experienced readers know that Johnston’s greatest strengths are, as Richard Ford says, “rich, irresistibly readable prose … a deft intelligence and a rare sense of what’s truly interesting to tell about life.” This makes him an increasingly rare thing – a “writer’s writer” (Annie Proulx and Annie Dillard are also great fans) who is also widely read because of his connectedness to the comic traditions of Newfoundland humour and its rootedness in that very strange thing that is Shakespearean comedy.
Revealing more about A World Elsewhere serves no useful purpose. Trust Annie Dillard’s judgment: Read it and revel in one of the funniest books that will move you to a deeper sense of the poignancy of human experience.
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 .