A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston: An unexpected treat

A gloomy weather weekend, a suddenly free Sunday and no Scandi-crime distractions on TV Cake at the Pythouse caferesulted in more reading this weekend than I’d expected. We did manage to meet a friend for lunch at the Pythouse but the lovely gardens were a bit too soggy for any prolonged wandering. A slice of their Ginger Beer and Lime cake provided a bit of compensation.

Cover imageI’d pulled a Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere of the TBR shelves on Friday but without much enthusiasm. I remembered The Colony of Unrequited Dreams as a bit of a plod but given that both Howard Norman and Annie Proulx rate Johnston highly I thought I’d try again and it paid off. The author’s note prefacing the novel tells us that it was inspired by the Vanderbilts’ fantastical mansion, Biltmore, but that the fictional Vanderluydens bear no resemblance to the Vanderbilts who would no doubt be suing for libel otherwise. Set in the nineteenth century, it’s the story of Landish Druken, determined not to enter the family sealing firm, and Van Vanderluyden, son of the wealthiest man in America, who he meets at Princeton. The two form an odd and somewhat dysfunctional friendship. Landish is sent home to Newfoundland in disgrace when Van betrays him after he refuses to move to Van’s North Carolina estate and there adopts a little boy, Deacon, orphaned as a consequence of his own father’s bravery and Landish’s father’s mercenary negligence. Reduced to penury, Landish resorts to contacting Van who eventually and grudgingly offers him work tutoring his daughter at the grandiose Vanderland where delusions run riot.

The biggest surprise about this novel was that it had me sniggering and chortling from the start. Wordplay is Landish’s speciality and the novel is stuffed full of it. He uses it to explain the world to Deacon instructing him in the ‘star-bored bow’ on the voyage from Newfoundland to New York which lets other passengers know that you’re bored with looking at the stars. ‘Make fun’ is to make love for which men need ‘Dick and the happy couple’. Even Landish’s name is an anagram. There’s tragedy as well as comedy and things come a little unstuck at the end but it’s a hugely entertaining novel which at times put me in mind of a mix of John Irving and T C Boyle at his best. Coincidentally the aforementioned Pythouse is close to Fonthill Gifford the site of William Beckford’s mansion, Fonthill Abbey, easily a worthy rival to Vanderland. So ridiculously ambitious was it that it fell down. Twice.

Both Landish’s father and Van would have been good candidates for the Ten Worst Dads in Books list except that… well, you’ll have to read the book. The list ranges from King Lear to Kevin’s dad in Lionel Shriver’s novel but Humbert Humbert tops it, having inveigled himself into the position of Lolita’s stepdad. At last – a counterbalance to that tired old wicked stepmother cliché.

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