Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A World Elsewhere

The book may be called A World Elsewhere, but Wayne Johnston's book drew me right into that world of loyalty and treachery, of dark family secrets, and deep puzzles.  I'll be anxious to enter other worlds of Johnston's in his other books, because I just loved this book.

A World Elsewhere chronicles the relationship between two unlikely friends who met at Princeton, Landish Druken and Padgett Vanderluyden.  The youngest son of the fabulously wealthy Vanderluyden family, Vanderluyden, or Van as he is know, is distinctly damaged goods.  Van strikes up a friendship with Landish and tries to seduce him into his dream of building a fantastic mansion to be called Vanderland.  When Druken declines, Van betrays him and Landish leaves Princeton without graduating.

Landish Druken is an unlikely person for Van to befriend.  He is the son of a nasty, wealthy sealer from Newfoundland who is reviled for his heartless desertion of crew members on an ice floe.

Landish is disowned by his father for not continuing in the sealing business.  Allowed to keep only his clothes, Landish dubs the arrangement The Sartorial Charter.  Landish is trying to write a book but is so dissatisfied he burns everything he writes.  Despite his circumstances, Landish adopts Deacon, the sweet and fragile son of the crew member who lost his life off Captain Druken's ship.  Landish likes to speak his own mind and follow his own path, even though his actions alienate others and drives him and Deacon into deeper penury.  Landish's last resort is to appeal for help to Van, and so he ends up at Vanderland after all.

The book's eccentric characters are so finely drawn that they are totally believable.  You might be charmed by the young orphan Deacon, chronically irritated with Landish for being unable to restrain his tongue, and disgusted by the malicious Van, but I defy any reader to be indifferent to these characters, or indeed any of the lesser players in the story.

The other great character in the book is the vast and eerie Vanderland estate itself.  Vanderland evokes an atmosphere reminiscent of two Neverlands:  the fantasy of J. M. Barrie's and the menace of Michael Jackson's.  Johnston has written a non-fiction about Biltmore*, the largest estate in the US, built by George Vanderbilt, the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Hmm, looks like a case of making your research do double duty!

Johnston's vibrant prose is full of delightful word play that had me chuckling out loud.  Even the final puzzle to be unveiled in the book rests in word play.  This verbal dexterity added to an already enjoyable book.

* Biltmore was used in a recent Economist article about income inequality to personify the extravagance of the Gilded Age in the US.  The article is well worth reading.

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