A Curious Earth

Aldous Jones is alone when we meet him in A Curious Earth, the hilarious and heartbreaking new novel by Gerard Woodward. His wife is dead, his kids are grown, and he’s taken to drink with a joyful vengeance. “All he had was time and space — big bounding hunks of each, things he had longed for all his life, but which now hung on his shoulders like great, fat, teasing gods,” Woodward tells us.

The most interesting thing in Aldous’s life is the old sack of potatoes sprouting in the moist depths of a rickety kitchen cabinet. The vines have sent thin tendrils of green through the cracked doors and out into the light. Aldous sees them and, in his alcoholic haze, is heartened that “a bunch of old potatoes could yen so strongly for the sixty-watt gloom of winter kitchen.”

Not so thrilled is Juliette, Aldous’s journalist daughter. She wants her father to quit drinking, to take a bath, to please eat something. It’s not until she loses her temper and calls him a failed painter — he’s a retired elementary school art teacher — that he finally responds. In a fit of pique, Aldous decides to paint the backyard garden and winds up in the hospital with a burst ulcer.

There, a visitor begs him to go to Belgium and visit his son, Julian, who has been behaving eccentrically. This leads to one of the funniest — but not the strangest — set pieces in the book. Aldous is out on the windy deck of a ferry, watching his fellow passengers and enjoying the blustery weather as he crosses the English Channel: “The long hank of one man’s comb-over writhed like a cobra. A woman in a plastic headscarf rattled past, the plastic rasping like a kazoo as the wind rushed beneath it, her hair set beneath it not budging an inch.”

Ecstatic in the gale, feeling alive for the first time in years, Aldous opens his mouth to shout “I love you” to no one in particular and everyone in general, when the wind whips his false teeth from his gums and out to sea. Here, you get the feeling that Woodward sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and pictured the scene aboard ship — and when his whimsy sent Aldous’s dentures flying, he simply leaned forward and typed it in. The whole book has that kind of wacky, lurching, listing logic to it. It sounds like a shortcoming but is, in fact, one of its greatest charms.

When Aldous arrives, toothless (“You look terrible, if you don’t mind me saying,” Julian tells his father. “Your face, it’s gone?”) he promptly fails in his quest. He’s there to get Julian to quit drinking. Instead, the two go bar hopping together. Along the way, Aldous develops a taste for absinthe, meets an impotent sexologist, and has a kinda sorta fling with a gorgeous young artist. Then just as suddenly — but with a new set of teeth — he’s gone from Belgium and back to his cold and empty house, where the potato vines are still growing.

A Curious Earth is a sequel, but don’t let that throw you. The same savage wit and strange, sweet innocence that propelled Woodward’s previous novel, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, onto the short list for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, shows up here. It helps, too, that Woodward loves his characters so much. He gladly re-introduces them to us, as though for the first time.

He covers plenty of new ground, too. Back at home, Aldous discovers night classes, a whole new world of people to meet and things to do. He takes Beginning Flemish, reconnects with his passion for Rembrandt (or at least, for Rembrandt’s mistress and sex life), and meets Maria. She’s either frail and mysterious or secretly dying of a terminal illness. Either way, Aldous is hooked.

It’s a mug’s game to try to predict where A Curious Earth is going. Much better to revel in the language and humor. Here’s Aldous, seeing a neighbor’s wife for the first time: “The woman was exceptionally tall and angular. She looked as though she could be folded away like a trestle table. Her hair was bright yellow, and so sculpted it seemed more like a hat. Her mouth was big and pouty, and when she spoke she stuck her muzzle out, sulkily.”

By the time Aldous, in a bid to spend time with Maria, takes a job teaching painting to the blind, Woodward has us so well trained we just think, Of course. And when he suddenly decides to share his solitary house with a family, we think, Why not?

Even at the very end, as Woodward brings A Curious Earth to a gentle, circuitous close, we’re waiting for the joke, for the quirky twist that might save Aldous — and us — from the inevitable ending.