Jonathan Carroll is something of a secret in America. Tor Books, his American publisher, points out that his books are “bestsellers in Europe,” and I’m sure they’d like to drop that qualifier with the publication of The Wooden Sea, Carroll’s latest novel.
Frannie McCabe, police chief and former delinquent, Vietnam veteran and happily re-married man, gets his world ripped apart shortly after taking pity on a stray three-legged, half-blind pit bull. McCabe senses a kindred spirit in the tough old dog, named Old Virtue. When Old Virtue winks at McCabe and dies, only to reappear very much unburied and alive, the middle-aged police chief begins his unusual adventure.
With the help of a philosophical hermit friend, McCabe tries to decide whether Old Virtue’s resurrection is “mischief or metaphysics.” Soon the only possibilities are metaphysics or dementia as McCabe meets his seventeen-year-old self, travels back in time to have breakfast with his long-dead father, and experiences the last day of his life. The weirdness and surprises generate a large part of the pleasure of this novel so I won’t give too much away. Suffice it to say, people appear who may not be people, things happen that might not have really happened, and the answers provided may be merely lies. McCabe does not know if the tricks before his eyes originate from the heavens, outer space, drugs, or future technology, but for the reader these tricks make the fictional small town of Crane’s View, New York continually interesting. McCabe experiences all this as a mystery rather than as chaos. He becomes a cosmic investigator, lining up evidence and trying to close a puzzling case, which becomes much stranger than a persistently living dog.
At times McCabe’s cranky Yankee narration is a bit much for my taste. He says things like “The whole situation had turned so fucking weird that it chewed up logic and fact like they were Juicy Fruit gum.” A gruff yet decent salt-of-the-earth figure, McCabe’s main flaws are that he occasionally uses impolite euphemisms for sex - never in public, just in his head and his life doesn’t measure up to the standards of his seventeen-year-old self. Our narrator is never as interesting as the events happening to him.
Also, Carroll expends too much effort convincing the reader that seventeen-year-old McCabe was more dangerous than a Happy Days-style ruffian: “I was the delinquent, the crud, the bad apple, and the criminal they knew would one day go to hell, to jail, to no good end.” We hear about the vandalism and fighting of the younger McCabe, nicknamed Gee-Gee, but these related bits of his dark past come off as unconvincing. Gee-Gee acts as a basically decent kid and we know the basically decent man he will become. The friction between the younger and older McCabes never really heats up, partially because they both want to solve the mystery and because they never seem that different from each other. McCabe never tells Gee-Gee that he will leave his reckless youth behind in a place called Vietnam and Gee-Gee mentions, but never really acts on, his disappointment in his future self.
Still, Carroll’s writing remains clear, quick, and up to the challenge of leading the reader through a story of shifting time, setting, and even identity. Carroll mixes convincing details of small-town life with through-the-looking-glass elements, and the secondary characters, such as McCabe’s wife Magda, stepdaughter Pauline, hermit friend George, and most of the miscellaneous town folk, are interesting and varied.
Carroll writes in a space between genres that probably gives his publisher fits. Although The Wooden Sea is a page-turner, it’s no paranormal thriller. Some scenes take place in the future, and technology is a suspect in the hallucinatory uprooting of McCabe’s life, but this is only science fiction under a broad definition. The Wooden Sea most reminds me of some of Philip K. Dick’s more mainstream works, a comparison also made by Jonathan Lethem on the jacket blurb (Carroll appears to have many well-known fans and is probably poised to break out of “cult author” status soon). As with some of PKD’s books, the clarity of the writing and the energy of the ideas carry one through the moments when one may wonder if the author is truly in control of the plot.
Of course when a book presents the secrets of the universe as its mystery, the ending can be tricky. Carroll ends his story well enough: things are explained, characters reach believable conclusions, and some mystery still lingers. The explanation feels a bit mundane, however, like an X-Files episode where the pleasure of the thrills is superior to the everyday workings of the conspiracy. The Wooden Sea is, much like its characters, a balance of wonder and disappointment.
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