Lucy and Todd

A World Elsewhere – Wayne Johnston

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 6, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Two chaps meet, Bouvard and Pécuchet-style, on a bench at Princeton University some time during the Gilded Age, that part of the 19th century when everything in America seemed on the up-and-up. If you had a lot of money. Landish Druken is a Newfoundlander, sent to university by his father, a sealing captain. This is Landish’s only chance to acculturate himself before returning to the north and the fur trade for the rest of his life. Padgett Vanderluyden, heir to the biggest fortune in America, is an altogether more Princetonian Princetonian. He decides on the spot that the rough-hewn Landish must, and will, be his only friend, for life. ‘Van’ begs Landish to come with him to North Carolina, where he is going to build the world’s largest house and Landish can become the novelist he wants to be. For several reasons Landish refuses and goes home, imbued with a higher calling now, and higher tastes than his father can stomach. Shortly Landish is destitute, living in an attic, writing the beginning of a novel ‘about the feeling of fall’ over and over again, and burning it every night.

Wayne Johnston is a master of the flavours of things: Landish and Van are japesters in the antique undergraduate style—when Van’s father dies, Landish gets him to smile as they pass a haberdashery by singing, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies/Those are pants that were his size.’ They pen a revue entitled Nutstewyou. But Landish’s desire to use his talent condemns him to his icy, howling winter attic. (Spoiler: the Newfoundland winter is here described so blisteringly that, truthfully, if you read this you’ll never go there.) But this is the setting of the greatest achievement of A World Elsewhere: a poetic and very deft observation of the nature of the bonds between parent and child. Landish thinks on his mother, who played with him when his father was away clubbing baby seals, and gave him his artistic nature. Most important is Landish’s relationship with Deacon, the orphan he ‘buys’ out of guilt. He raises Deacon in a punning yet meaningful dialogue that informs the boy about the world in a rich, ironical way. Landish changes the name of almost every thing around them: a health inspector becomes the Wealth Inspector; the nuns who visit them with over-curious charity are Nun One and Nun Too Soon. It is to these constructions and charms put on life that the little boy clings in their eventual adventure at ‘Vanderland’, the demesne and doom Van has created for himself in the middle of bloody nowhere. Nothing good comes of this reunion – the story, like the era, is ridden with neurosis and unrequited longings, for love and money.

The tone of the novel shifts as writer and boy are sucked into the opulent, etiolated atmosphere of Vanderland. The violently painted language of the first part has to be abandoned: the storms are now inside people. As Johnston says in his Notes, the mise en scene of A World Elsewhere is that of George Vanderbilt and his estate Biltmore, on which he spent his entire fortune. It is an enormous place that no one ever liked, at once too large and too plush. Johnston claims to have become fascinated by it. As charmless and lacking in history as Biltmore is, he must have felt driven to whip some heat, some scandal, some fight into a house which resembles Grand Central Station (also constructed by the Vanderbilts) in more ways than one. Vanderland is fast becoming  a mausoleum, and Van knows it. Landish and Deacon track life in, like unwanted footprints. This is going to end badly, for Van, like a Hearst, really only wants to be alone.

The denouement of the story is a surprising eruption into derring-do, dark passageways and Pinkertons. The direction taken by the characters, as drawn by Johnston throughout the novel, would probably in reality have been different. But after sweeping us from the wild world of St John’s Bay to the over-mentated interior of the costliest sarcophagus in the world, you can’t blame him. After all, the Police Gazette was always read by more people than the Social Register.


(A condensed version of this review was published in the Herald, Aug. 5, 2012)


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