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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Jonathan Carroll is the reigning master of American magical realism. His best, most representative books -- such as The Land of Laughs, Bones of the Moon, and From the Teeth of Angels -- feature ordinary people whose lives are disrupted by extraordinary, sometimes impossible, encounters. In his latest novel, The Wooden Sea, Carroll follows this aesthetic template once again, and the result is one of his strangest, most unpredictable creations to date.
The narrator/hero of The Wooden Sea is Frannie McCabe, last seen in the relatively straightforward murder mystery Kissing the Beehive. Frannie is the police chief of Crane's View, a small town in upstate New York. A Vietnam veteran and former juvenile delinquent, Frannie has made peace with most of his demons. He is now a devoted husband and stepfather and a genuine pillar of his bucolic community. Then one day, Frannie takes in a crippled, battle-scarred mongrel known as Old Vertue, and his life changes forever.
Trouble begins almost immediately, when Old Vertue collapses and dies in Frannie's office. Driven by an obscure compulsion, Frannie buries the dog in the woods outside of town. A day or two later, Old Vertue's body reappears in the trunk of Frannie's car, accompanied by a strangely pleasant smell and a ubiquitous, multicolored feather. From that point forward, reality begins to unravel with increasing speed. A high school honor student dies of an apparent heroin overdose, and her newly dead corpse begins to speak. A local couple disappears, leaving only a feather behind. A friend of Frannie's locates a portrait of Old Vertue, a portrait that appears to be hundreds of years old. The pervasive sense of strangeness deepens when Frannie encounters the literal incarnation of his 17-year-old self, who comes at the behest of unnamed forces with an undisclosed agenda of their own.
Frannie's attempts to resolve the mysteries that have entered his life form the heart of this relentlessly bizarre novel. By the time The Wooden Sea reaches its surprisingly moving conclusion, Frannie has experienced a multitude of "impossible" occurrences, including two-way time travel, alien contact, and a brief appearance by the reunited Beatles, who put on a memorable private concert in the Crane's View grocery store. As always, Carroll's narrative dazzle conceals a deeper purpose, and the proliferation of extraordinary events leads, in the end, to a celebration of the enduring value of ordinary, everyday lives. Like the large majority of Carroll's work, The Wooden Sea is amusing, touching, puzzling, engaging, and absolutely original. It is the latest high point -- one of many -- in a remarkable, and singular, career.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).