Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere tells the story of Landish Druken and his adopted son Deacon. Landish, growing up a sealer’s son, has no interest in the land and sea. He is a writer that burns his pages the minute he’s finished writing them. At his father’s chagrin he decides to go to Princeton to study literature, promising his father “the balance of [his] life” when he returns, and there he meets the flamboyant and secretive Vanderluyden, an independently wealthy man who lives a life of weird seclusion. After some debaucherous years together at Princeton, where competitions of wit and nights of being “decks awash” are many, Landish goes back to Newfoundland. This is when he adopts Deacon. They live together in an attic with hardly any room and even fewer possessions. With nothing to lose, Landish and Deacon set off for Vanderland, a place with 300 rooms and 87 fireplaces in North Carolina. As soon as they arrive, Landish immediately notices how Van has changed. He is uncharacteristically unflinching, drawing confidence from the extremes of extravagance that surround him. Both Lan and Deacon live at Vanderland unharmed and somewhat unaffected until the truth of the Vanderluyden history is revealed, and they realize that they have to try to leave.
One of the things I absolutely love about Johnston is his ability to capture the thoughts and words of children. Deacon comes home from a day of learning with Godwin, Van’s daughter, and tells Landish about “Jack and Beans Talk,” and that “starting with Abraham, all penises were circle-sized” (153). The reader falls in love with Deacon, the puny, sickly orphan who is the quintessential cute kid, whose perspectives are adorable and alarming, whose body holds a history of sadness, so much so that tears flow from his eyes as he sleeps. The relationship he has with Landish is certainly the most beautiful relationship in this book and in Deacon-speak, it is definitely “dot-worthy.”
A World Elsewhere is like a typical Johnston novel that could never disappoint with a beautiful father-son relationship at its core. The characters are armed with Johnston’s effortless wordplay and his acute understanding of human nature. His stories wrap their arms around you. They swaddle you with perfect plots, unforgettable characters (need I mention Bobby O’Malley, Sheilagh Fielding and Draper Ryan?) and layers of seemingly effortless, robust language that tells a story that is both beautiful and frightening.