The Wooden Sea

( 5 )

Overview

From the moment a three-legged dog limps into the life of Police Chief Frannie McCabe and drops dead at his feet, McCabe finds himself in a new world of disturbing miracles. His small town of Crane's View, New York has long been a haven of harmony and comfort—but now he finds himself afflicted by the inexplicable, by omens that converge to throw his life into doubt. And what he does over the next few days may have consequences for the whole world . . . .

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The Wooden Sea

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Overview

From the moment a three-legged dog limps into the life of Police Chief Frannie McCabe and drops dead at his feet, McCabe finds himself in a new world of disturbing miracles. His small town of Crane's View, New York has long been a haven of harmony and comfort—but now he finds himself afflicted by the inexplicable, by omens that converge to throw his life into doubt. And what he does over the next few days may have consequences for the whole world . . . .

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The 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

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).

From the Publisher
“Jonathan Carroll is a cult waiting to be born.”—Pat Conroy

“Jonathan Carroll is a master of sunlit surrealism.”—Jonathan Lethem

“A quirky piece of intelligent pop that is also surprisingly moving.”—The New Yorker

“An intellectually diverting writer that . . . confounds the genre-rigid standard of most literary criticism. It is only a matter of time until his readership swells.”—The New York Times

“Poignant, wise, and wildly weird . . . . Utterly engaging characters, and a serious sense of fun.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Jonathan Carroll has the magic. He’ll lend you his eyes, and you’ll never see the world in quite the same way ever again.”—Neil Gaiman

“A surrealistic yarn told so frankly it seems wholly plausible.”—U.S. News and World Report

“Jonathan Carroll is as scary as Hitchcock, when he isn’t being as funny as Jim Carrey. If you’ve never read this wonderful fantasist, buy this book. You’ll stay up all night and thank me in the morning.”—Stephen King

“His beguiling, impossible novels are like Frank Capra films torn open to reveal the Philip K. Dick or Julio Cortazar mechanisms ticking away at their cores. The wooden Sea is one of his funniest, stranging, and most melancholy offerings.”—Jonathan Lethem.

“Though critics may try, there’s no way to pigeonhole The Wooden Sea. The novel includes time travel, religious doctrine, philosophy, talking animals, reincarnation, juvenile delinquency, murder, and megalomania. But mostly it’s a great love story in which the protagonist is willing to give up everything for the woman he loves.”—The Rocky Mountain News

The Wooden Sea is a treat, and I’m heading out to look for more Jonathan Carroll titles. Frannie, the worldly war-stung small town cop, hits classic status for me. His luminously hard-boiled American voice is smart, funny, and devastatingly decent. Kind of guy you’re glad to follow anywhere—even into the strange zones of The Wooden Sea.”—Katherine Dunn

Alan Cheuse
Carroll is such an intellectually diverting writer that it must be only a matter of time before his readership swells . . . [a] distinctive kind of intelligent entertainment.
New York Times Book Review
San Francisco Chronicle
Jonathan Carroll is a true original, possessing both a distinctive vision and the talent to make that vision come fully to life.
Rocky Mountain News
Jonathan Carroll's prose is so closely akin to poetry that you may want to read occasional passages more than once just to savor them.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Immensely popular abroad, Carroll (The Marriage of Sticks) has yet to achieve commensurate stature on his native shore. His latest novel combines George Perec's pleasure in puzzles and Philip Dick's interest in metaphysics. Frannie McCabe is the 47-year-old police chief of Crane's View, N.Y., who one day adopts an old, three-legged stray dog. This is typical of his style, as his wife, Magda, recognizes: "The more goofy they are, the more you like them, huh, Fran?" The dog, Old Vertue, dies; the weirdness begins when McCabe tries to bury him. The burial is interrupted by a report about the perpetually battling Schiavo couple, who seem to have tidied up and abandoned their usually squalid house. McCabe's investigation of the domicile turns up a bizarrely patterned feather which, along with the dog's carcass, reappears in the trunk of Magda's car the next day, spooking McCabe. Even spookier, Pauline, McCabe's stepdaughter, now has a tattoo that exactly matches the feather. Then McCabe's world turns surreal: he is visited by his teenage self. The adolescent McCabe, who had been a notorious delinquent, leads his older self to Astropel, a black extraterrestrial. The aliens know Crane's View has some connection to the cosmic puzzle of the universe itself, but they need McCabe to figure out the specifics. Astropel shuttles Frannie back and forth in time, piling up such clues as a maniac Dutch millionaire from 2030 and a koan ("How do you row a boat on a wooden sea?") pronounced by a dead high school girl. Carroll's best set piece shows McCabe watching Crane's View physically fast forward from the '60s to the '90s. Although the story's resolution is weaker than its buildup, this wonderfully offbeat novel will further augment Carroll's growing reputation as the pop writer's pop writer. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Crane's View police chief Francis McCabe adopts a stray dog who dies in his office almost immediately, launching a series of increasingly bizarre occurrences that transform McCabe's comfortable life into a wonderland of inexplicable conspiracies. The author of The Marriage of Sticks and The Land of Laughs continues his exploration of the surreal possibilities inherent in the "real world," exposing the fragile structure of cause and effect and infusing even the most insignificant events with larger-than-life meaning. By turns whimsical and disturbing, this tale of transformation and new beginnings belongs in most libraries. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765300133
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 2/9/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Carroll has written 13 novels, a short story collection, and a number of film scripts. He has won the World Fantasy award, British Fantasy award, French Fantasy award (twice), and the Bram Stoker award. He has lived in Vienna, Austria for three decades with his wife Beverly and immortal bullterrier, Jack the Idiot. 

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Read an Excerpt

Old Vertue

Never buy yellow clothes or cheap leather. That's my credo and there are more. Know what I like to see? People killing themselves. Don't misunderstand; I'm not talking about the poor fucks who jump out windows or stick their sorry heads into plastic bags forever. No "Ultimate Fighting Championship" either, which is only a bunch of rabid crewcuts biting each other. I'm talking about the guy on the street, face the color of wet lead, lighting up a Camel and coughing up his soul the moment he inhales. Good for you, Sport! Long live nicotine, stubbornness, and self-indulgence.

"Let's have another round here, Jimmy!" croons King Cholesterol down at the end of the bar. He with the rosy nose and enough high blood pressure to launch him and his whole family tree to Pluto. Gratification, mass, texture. The heart attack that'll nuke him will last a few seconds. The cold beer in thick mugs and perfume of grilling T-bone steaks are forever until he dies. It's worth the trade-off. I'm with him.

My wife Magda says getting me to understand is like throwing peas at a wall. But I understand fine; I just don't usually agree. Old Vertue is a perfect example. One day a guy walks into the station house leading a dog the likes of which you have never seen. It's a mixed breed but is mainly pit bull covered by a swirl of brown and black markings so he looks like a marble cake. But that's where his normalcy stops because this dog has only three and a half legs, is missing an eye, and breathes weird. Sort of out the side of his mouth but you can't really be sure. The way air comes out, it sounds like he's whistling "Michelle" under his breath. There are two deep raised scars across the top of his head. He's such a mess that all of us stare at him like he just arrived from hell on the Concorde.

Fucked up as he looked, the dog wore a very nice red leather collar. Hanging from it was a small flat silver heart with the name "Old Vertue" engraved on it. That was how it was spelled. That's all; no owner's name, address, or telephone number. Only Old Vertue. And he's exhausted. In the middle of everyone there, he collapsed on the floor and started snoring. The guy who brought him in said he found the dog sleeping in the Grand Union parking lot. He didn't know what the hell to do with it but was sure it was going to be run over napping there, so he brought it to us.

Everyone else thought we should take the dog to the nearest animal shelter and forget about it. But for me it was love at first sight. I made a bed for him in my office, bought dog food and a couple of orange bowls. He slept almost continuously for two days. When awake he lay in his bed and stared at me with gloomy eyes. Or rather eye. When someone in the office asked why I kept it around, I said this dog has been there and back. Since I'm chief of police, nobody protested.

Except my wife. Magda believes animals should be eaten and can barely stand the nice cat I've had for years. When she heard I was keeping a three-legged, one-eyed marble cake in my office she came by for a look. She stared at it for too long and stuck out her lower lip. A bad sign. "The more goofy they are, the more you like them, huh, Fran?"

"This dog's a veteran, honey. He's seen battle."

"There are kids starving in North Korea while you're serving this mutt food."

"Send those kids over here—they can share its Alpo."

"You're the mutt, Frannie, not him."

Standing nearby, Magda's daughter, Pauline, started laughing. We looked at her with surprise because Pauline doesn't laugh at anything. Absolutely no sense of humor. When she does laugh it's usually at something weird or totally inappropriate. She's a strange girl who works hard at remaining invisible. My secret nickname for her is Fade.

"What's so funny?"

"Frannie. He always goes left when everyone else goes right. What's the matter with your dog? What's he's doing?"

I turned around just in time to see Old Vertue die.

It had managed to stand, but all three of its legs were trembling badly. Its head was down and it swung it back and forth like it was saying no.

Typically, Pauline started giggling.

Vertue stopped shaking its head and looked up at us. At me. It looked straight at me and winked. I swear to God. The old dog winked at me as if we shared a secret. Then it fell over and died. Its three legs twitched a few times then curled slowly in toward his body. There was no question where it'd gone.

None of us said a thing; just stared at the poor old guy. Finally Magda went over for a closer look. "Jeez, maybe I shouldn't have said such mean things about him."

The dead dog farted. A long one—its last breath going out the wrong door. Moving back fast, Magda glared at me.

Pauline crossed her arms. "That's so weird! It was alive two seconds ago and now it's not. I've never seen anything die."

One of the few advantages of being young. When you're seventeen, death is a star light-years away you can hardly see through a powerful telescope. Then you grow older and discover it's no distant star, but a big fucking asteroid coming straight at your head.

"Now what, Doctor Doolittle?"

"Now I guess I gotta go bury him."

"Just make sure it's not in our backyard."

"I thought under your pillow would be good."

We locked eyeballs and smiled at the same time. She kissed the air between us. "Come on, Pauline. We've got things to do."

She left, but Pauline hesitated. As she moved slowly toward the door she stared at the dog as if hypnotized. Once there she stopped and stared some more. Outside my office there was a sudden big burst of laughter. Obviously Magda telling the others the sad news.

"Go ahead with your mother, Pauline. I want to wrap him up and get him out of here."

"Where are you going to bury him?"

"Someplace down by the river. Give him a nice view."

"Is that legal to bury him there?"

"If I catch myself doing it, I'll arrest me."

That broke her trance and she left.

Even in death the old guy looked beat. Whatever kind of life he'd had, he got to the finish line on all fours (all threes) with nothing left. He used up everything he had. That was clear after one glance at him. His head was turned into his body; the thick pink scars on top were vicious-looking things. Where the hell had he gotten them?

Bending down, I gently wrapped the ends of the cheap blanket around his body and slowly rolled him into it. The body was heavy and loose. His one good front paw stuck out. Maneuvering it back inside the blanket, I stopped and shook it. "My name is Frannie. I'm your paw bearer today."

I lifted the bundle and went to the door. Without warning it swung open and Patrolman Big Bill Pegg stood there, trying hard not to smile. "You need help, Chief?"

"No, I've got him. Just open that door wider." A bunch of people stood outside and applauded as I passed.

"Very funny."

"I wouldn't start a pet shop if I was you, Fran."

"Waddya got there, pigs in a blanket?"

"Nice guest—you invite him in and he drops dead."

"You guys are just jealous he didn't die in your office." I kept moving. Their laughter and jokes followed me out the door. Old Vertue was not light. Lugging him to the car wasn't the easiest thing I'd done that day. Once there, I lowered him onto the trunk lid and fished car keys out of my pocket. I slipped one into the lock and turned, but other than the click, nothing happened. The body held the lid down. Hefting him up over a shoulder, I turned the key again. The lid popped up. Before I had a chance to do anything, a loud voice a foot away from my left ear boomed "Why you putting that dog in your trunk, Frannie?"

"Because it's dead, Johnny. I'm going to go bury it."

Johnny Petangles, our town idiot, went up on his toes and leaned over my shoulder for a better look. "Can I come with you and watch?"

"No, John." I tried to push Vertue against one wall of the trunk so he wouldn't slide around when I drove, but someone was in my way. "John, move! Haven't you got anything to do?"

"No. Where are you going to bury him, Frannie? In the graveyard?"

"Only people get to go there. I haven't decided yet. Would you please move over so I can get him settled here?"

"Why do you want to get him settled if he's dead?"

I stopped moving and closed my eyes. "John, would you like a hamburger?"

"That would be very nice."

"Good." I took five dollars out of my pocket and handed it to him. "Eat a hamburger, and when you're done, go up to my house and give Magda a hand bringing in that firewood, okay?"

"Okay." Holding the money in his hand he didn't move. "I'll be very quiet if you let me come with you."

"Johnny, am I going to have to shoot you?"

"You always say that." He looked at the Arnold Schwarzenegger watch I had given him a few years before when he was going through a Terminator phase. "How long do I have before I go over to your house? I don't want to eat too fast. I get gas."

"Take your time." I patted his shoulder and moved to get in the car.

"I didn't know you had a dog for a friend, Frannie."

"Dogs know how to love, John. They wrote the book."

Driving away, I checked in the rearview mirror. He was waving at me as a child would—his hand flapped up and down.

• • •

Magda believes you can tell a person's personality by what is lying around in their car. Stopped at a light on April Avenue, I looked down at the passenger's seat and saw this: three unopened packs of Marlboros, a cheap cell phone mangled from having been dropped often, a paperback collection of John O'Hara short stories, and an unopened envelope from the town hospital containing the results of a barium enema. In the glove compartment was a tin of Altoids breath mints, a videotape of Around the World in Eighty Days and CDs of seventies disco music no one but me wanted to hear. The only interesting things in the whole car were the Beretta pistol under my arm and the dead dog in the trunk. The contents depressed me. What if we were living under Mount Vesuvius and at that moment it decided to blow again? Lava and ash would kill and perfectly preserve me in my two-ton Ford coffin. Thousands of years from now archaeologists would dig me up and guess who I was judging by what was around me: cigarettes, KC & the Sunshine Band, the results of an asshole exam, and a dog carcass. What's My Line?

Where was I going to bury Old Vertue, and with what? I had no tools in the car. I'd have to go home first and get a shovel out of the garage. I took a quick left and headed down Broadway.

On his eightieth birthday, my father swore he would never again read a set of instructions. He died a month later. I say this now because I had used the same shovel to bury him. People thought I was cracked. Cemeteries have backhoes for that purpose, but I thought there was something ancient and good about making my father's final bed. I couldn't say Kaddish, but I could scoop him a hole with my own hands. In the middle of a hot summer day I dug his grave with a smile on my face. Johnny Petangles sat on the ground nearby and kept me company. He asked where we went when we died. Bangladesh, if we're bad, I said. When he didn't understand that I asked where he thought we went. Into the ocean. We turn into rocks and God throws us into the ocean. Was that where my father was now, hiding some Greek calamari? Driving along, I wondered what Johnny would have said about where dead animals go.

The two way radio crackled. "Chief?"

"McCabe here."

"Chief, we've got a domestic disturbance up on Helen Street."

"Schiavo?"

"You got it."

"All right, I'm near there. I'll take care of it."

"Better you than me." The dispatcher chuckled and clicked off.

I shook my head. Donald and Geraldine Schiavo, née Fortuso, had been my classmates at Crane's View High School. They were married right after we graduated and had been at war ever since. Sometimes she hit him on the head with a pot. Sometimes he hit her on the head with a chair. Whatever was closest. For years people had pleaded with them to divorce, but the two lovebirds had nothing else in the world besides their hatred so why should they give that up? I would guess once a month their mutual simmer turned to boil and one or the other got dented.

A group of neighborhood teenagers were standing on the sidewalk in front of the Schiavo house, laughing.

"What's up, troops?"

"Fuckin' Star Wars in there, Mr. McCabe. You shoulda heard her screaming before. But it's been quiet for a while."

"They're resting between rounds." I walked up the path to the door and turned the knob. It was open. "Anyone home?" When no one answered I said it again. Silence. I walked in and closed the door. What first struck me was how clean and nice-smelling the house was. Geri Schiavo was a sloppy, lazy woman who didn't mind having a house that stunk. Ditto her husband. One of the annoyances of prying them apart month after month was going into their house, which invariably smelled of BO, rooms where windows had been closed too long, and old food you didn't ever want to taste.

Not this time. A new store had opened recently in town that sold a wide assortment of exotic teas. I don't drink tea but found as many excuses as I could to go in there just to enjoy its aroma. After my initial shock wore off at the order and shine in the Schiavo house, I realized it smelled like the tea shop. A potent, wonderful fragrance that gave your nose delicious things to think about.

The surprises didn't end there either because the house was empty. I moved from room to room searching for Donald and Geri. Nothing had changed since the last time I visited. The same cheap couch and prehistoric BarcaLounger sat side by side in the living room like bums at rest. Family photographs on the mantle, a scrawny piss-yellow canary hopping around in its cage, all the same. But there was that orderliness and shine to everything I had never seen before in this house. It was as if the couple had prepared everything for a party or an important visit. But as soon as they had everything ready, the owners left.

I went to the basement, half worried that down there would be a rough answer to the mystery upstairs: both Schiavos hanging from matching rafters, or one standing over the other's body with a gleeful look on their face and a gun in their hand. Didn't happen. The basement was only full of tidily stacked magazines, old furniture, and junk. And even that had been neatly arranged in a corner. Down there it smelled good too. It was the damnedest thing. What the hell was going on?

Their backyard was as big as a bus stop but the lawn had been mowed. I had never seen the grass out there less than five inches high. I'd once even offered Donald the use of my lawn-mower, which he grouchily rejected.

Back in the house I sat in the BarcaLounger to think things over. And almost went right on my ass when it tipped all the way back on nonexistent springs. Touch and go for a few seconds, I managed to wrestle the thing back upright. That's when I saw the feather.

There was a sealed-up fireplace on the other side of the room. As I fought gravity to get the stupid chair back on earth, I saw a flash of incredibly bright color on the floor in front of the fireplace. Wiggily kneed from the battle, I went over to the feather and picked it up. About ten inches long, it was a mixture of the most brilliant colors imaginable. Purple, green, black, orange—more. I couldn't imagine a more inappropriate object to be in the house of these slobs, but there it was. I stared at it while I called the station house and told Bill Pegg what I'd seen.

"That's a new one. Maybe they got beamed up to the mother ship."

"Captain Picard wouldn't want them on the Enterprise. You've gotten no reports, Bill? No car crashes or anything?"

"Nope. Wouldn't it be great if they died? No more having to go up there. Nothing's come in."

"Call Michael Zakrides at the hospital and check with him. I'm going home to get something and then down to the river. Call me on my pocket phone if you hear anything."

"Okay. What'd you do with the dead dog, Chief? Why don't you leave it for the Schiavos for when they get come home. Put it in their oven! That would shut Geri up for five minutes."

I flipped the feather back and forth in my fingers. "I'll talk to you later. Hey, Bill, one more thing—"

"Yeah?"

"Know anything about birds?"

"Birds? Jeez, I don't know. Why? What about 'em?"

"What kind of bird would have feathers about ten inches long and be incredibly colorful?"

"A peacock?"

"I thought of that, but I don't think so. I know what a peacock feather looks like. This isn't it. Peacock feathers are more symmetrical in their marking. They have that big circle on them too. This isn't one."

"What isn't? What are you talking about?"

I snapped out of it, realizing I was thinking out loud as I stared at the feather. "Nothing. I'll check with you later."

"Frannie?"

"Yes?"

"Put the dog in the oven."

I hung up.

How could so many colors exist on one thin feather? I couldn't stop looking at the damned thing but knew I had to get moving. Outside again, a couple of the kids from before were still standing around, probably hoping for more Schiavo fireworks. I asked if they'd seen anyone leave the house before I arrived. They said no. When I told them the place was empty they couldn't believe it.

"There's got to be someone in there, Mr. McCabe. You shoulda heard them screaming!"

I took out a pack of cigarettes and offered them around. "What'd they say?"

The kid took a light from me and blew out a line of smoke. "Nothin' special. She was calling him an asshole and a creep. But loud. Whoa, loud! You could have heard her downtown."

"And him? Did Donald say anything?"

The other kid lowered his voice four octaves and got a look on his face like he was about to be the life of the party. "Bitch! Fock you, stupid fica! I do what the fock I wan'!"

"Fic?"

"Fica. It means, you know, pussy in Italian."

"What would I do without you guys? Listen, if you see either of them come back, call me on this number." I handed one my card.

"What's that?" He pointed to the feather.

"Beautiful, huh? I found it on their floor." I held it up. We all silently admired it.

"Maybe they were doing something in there with feathers, you know, like kinky." The boy beamed.

"You know, when I was a kid, the kinkiest thing I ever heard about was people dressing up in leather suits and whipping each other. I almost had a heart attack. But you guys know more now than Alex Comfort."

"Who's he?"

Back in the car, I slid the feather carefully under the sunshade over the driver's seat. Why was the front door of their house open? And the back door? No one leaves their doors open anymore, not even in Crane's View. Donald Schiavo worked as a mechanic at Birmfion Motors. I called there and talked to a secretary who said he'd gone out for lunch four hours ago and hadn't come back. The boss was mad because Donald had a four-by-four still up on the rack and the customer was waiting.

I shrugged it off. The Schiavos were somewhere. They would turn up. Driving home, I tried to remember where in the garage I had put the shovel.

• • •

An hour later I struck another tree root and flipped out. Flinging the shovel away, I put a filthy hand in my mouth and bit myself. I hadn't been this frustrated in ten weeks, give or take a few. My plan had been so simple: Drive down to the river, find a nice spot, dig Old Vertue a hole, drop him in, sweet dreams, go back to the office. But I'd forgotten they were laying pipe by the river and what with all the men and equipment around, it was no place for a dead dog and me.

So I drove around in those big dark woods way back behind the Tyndall house and looked till I found a prime place. Sunlight danced down through the leaves. It was quiet except for gusts of wind through the leaves and birds singing. The air smelled of summer and earth.

I was in such a good mood that I started singing "Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it's off to work we go" as I stabbed the shovel into the soft ground. Five minutes later I hit the first root, which turned out to be as thick as the underground monster in Tremors. Undeterred (Hi-ho, Hi-ho), I shrugged and began digging in another place. But it turned out, gee whiz, there were tree roots all over that old forest. And as Old Vertue stiffened in the trunk of the car, my anger stiffened into a rage hard-on thirteen inches long.

When I had finished chewing my hand and smoking three cigarettes I thought very slowly and with forced calm: I will try one more place. If that doesn't work…And this is what's interesting: Furious and frustrated as I was by the earth's unwillingness to accept my hole, not for a minute did I consider taking the dog's body to the pound and having it cremated. Old Vertue had to be buried. He had to be laid in the ground with gentleness and care. I didn't know why that was fixed solidly in my brain, but it was. I didn't owe him anything. No years of close companionship, a great friend whenever I was alone and down, summer days tossing him a stick in the backyard. Man's best friend? I didn't even know him. He was just an old fucked-up dog that happened to die on my office floor. Sure, part of it had to do with what Magda had said—I like losers. Most of the time I was on their side. Failures, liars, empty skulls, drunks, and felons—bring them on; I'll pay for their drinks. Old Vertue seemed to be all of the above wrapped in one. I was sure if he'd been human he would have had a voice like a coffee grinder and a brain brown from abuse. But there was something more to his having entered my life. If you asked what, I'd be lying if I said I knew. All I was sure of was I had to take care of his burial and I was determined do that. So I put my temper back in its box and picked up the shovel again. This time it worked.

Digging a deep hole takes more effort than you think. Plus it does a big bad number on the skin of your hands. But I found a spot a few feet over that let me go down as far as I wanted without putting any more obstacles in the way. When I was finished, the hole was about three feet deep and wide enough. He would be all right here.

The most interesting thing was what came up on the shovel with the last scoop. On top of the dark dirt was something much brighter, almost white. It was such a vivid contrast that no one could have missed it. I lay the shovel down and reached for whatever it was. At first I thought it was a stick that had been bleached of all color. About ten inches long, it was silvery gray and jagged at one end, as if it had been attached to something larger but had been snapped off. As I brought it up closer for a better look, the silver became a kind of creamy white; it wasn't wood but some kind of bone.

No big deal. Forests are full of animal bones. I even smiled thinking I had upset one animal's grave digging a place for another. The final outrage—a squirrel can't even rest in peace these days. Call the ASPCA! Cruelty to dead animals.

Pauline was interested in zoology. I thought she might like a look at the bone, so I slipped it into my pocket while walking back to the car to get Old Vertue.

Popping the trunk, I got a jolt looking in. The dog's eye had opened and he was staring right at me. No matter how in control you are or used to being around bodies, getting a look from the dead is never home sweet home. There's still enough life in those eyes to make you lick your lips and turn away, hoping when you look again somehow they will be closed.

"I'm just going to put you to bed, Vertue. It's nice here. It's a nice place to stop." Sliding my hands under his body I lifted him out of the trunk. He felt heavier than before, but I assumed that was because the digging had tired me. My arms shook slightly as I carried him. The sunlight through the trees went on and off my shoes. Carefully stepping into the hole, I laid him down as gently as I could. The body was twisted a little and I rearranged it. The eyes were still open and the tip of his tongue came out of the corner of his mouth. Poor old guy. I stepped out and picked up the shovel, ready to start tossing dirt in on him. But things still didn't seem right. I had an idea. Back to the car where I pulled the long feather from beneath the sunshade.

I slipped it under his collar. Like an Egyptian king going to the hereafter surrounded by his worldly possessions, Old Vertue now had a beautiful feather to carry along. It was getting late and I had other things to do. Quickly filling the grave, I tamped it down as best I could, hoping another animal wouldn't catch the scent and dig it up.

That night at dinner Magda asked where I'd put him. After I described my adventure in the forest, she surprised me by saying, "Would you like to have a dog, Frannie?"

"No, not particularly."

"But you were so nice to him. I wouldn't mind having one. Some of them are sort of cute."

"You hate dogs, Magda."

"That's true, but I love you."

Pauline rolled her eyes and dramatically stomped off to the kitchen carrying her plate. When I was sure she was out of earshot I said, "I wouldn't mind having a cat."

My wife blinked and frowned. "You already have a cat."

"Well, then I wouldn't mind a little pussy."

• • •

That night, after a visit from my favorite pussy on earth, I dreamt of feathers, bones, and Johnny Petangles.

• • •

Next morning the weather was so beautiful I decided to drive my motorcycle to work instead of the car. The end of summer sat on the town. It was my favorite season. Everything summery is richer and more intense then because you know it will all be gone soon. Magda's mother used to say a flower smells sweetest when it's just begun to rot. A few of the horse chestnut trees had already begun dropping their spiny yellow buckeyes. They hit the pavement with a crack or clunk on cars. When a breeze blew it was thick with the smell of ripe plants and dust. The dew hung around longer in the morning because the real heat of the day didn't start until hours later.

I have a big motorcycle—a Ducati Monster—and the evil "Fuck me—I'm a god!" sound of its 900cc engine alone is worth the price of admission. And there is nothing more pleasant than driving it slowly through Crane's View, New York, on a morning like that. The day hasn't started yet, hasn't turned the sign in its front window to read OPEN yet. Only diehards are out and about. A smiling woman sweeps her front doorstep with a red broom. A young weimaraner, its stump tail wagging madly, sniffs garbage cans placed at a curb. An old man wearing a white ball cap and sweatsuit is either jogging slowly or walking as fast as he can.

Seeing someone exercising immediately inspired me to think of French crullers and coffee with lots of cream. I'd stop and get both, but there was one thing to do first.

After a few slow lefts and rights, I pulled up in front of the Schiavo house to see if anything had changed. No car was parked either in the driveway or near the house. I knew they owned a blue Mercury, but no blue cars were in sight. I tried the front door. It was still open. We'd have to change that. Couldn't have a thief going in and stealing their painting-on-velvet of the Bay of Naples. I'd send someone over today to put temporary locks on the doors and leave a note for the elusive Donald and Geri. Not that I cared about either them or their possessions. Standing with hands in my pockets looking around, it was too beautiful a morning to have a weird little mystery like this to think about, especially when it had to do with those two jerks. But it was the job to care so I would.

My pocket phone rang. It was Magda saying our car wouldn't start. She was the queen of I-Hate-Technology and proud of it. This woman did not want to know how to work a computer, a calculator, any thingamajig that went beep-beep. She balanced her checkbook doing multiplication and division with a pencil, used a microwave oven with the greatest suspicion, and cars were her enemy if they didn't start immediately when the key was turned. The irony was her daughter was a computer whiz who was in the midst of applying to tough colleges that specialized in the field. Amused, Magda stared at Pauline's talents and shrugged.

"I drove that car all day yesterday."

"I know, Poodles, but it still doesn't start."

"You didn't flood the motor? Remember the time—"

Her voice rose. "Frannie, don't go there. Do you want me to call the mechanic or do you want to fix it?"

"Call the mechanic. Are you sure you didn't—"

"I'm sure. Know what else? Our garage smells great. Did you spray air freshener in there? What did you do?"

"Nothing. The car that was fine yesterday won't start, but the garage smells good?"

"Right."

One beat. Two beats. "Mag, I'm biting my tongue over here. There are things I want to say to you but I'm holding back—"

"Good! Keep holding. I'll call the garage. See you later." Click. If she hung up any faster I would have given her a speeding ticket. I was sure she'd done something wicked like flood the carburetor. Again. But you cut deals with your partner in marriage; they give you longitude and you give them latitude. That way, if you're lucky, you create a map together of a shared world both can recognize and inhabit comfortably.

Work that morning was the usual nothing much. The mayor came in to discuss erecting a traffic light at an intersection where there had been way too many accidents in the last few years. Her name is Susan Ginnety. We had been lovers in high school and Susan never forgave me for it. Thirty years ago I was the baddest fellow in our town. There are still stories floating around about what a bad seed I was back then and most of them are true. If I had a photo album from that time, all of the pictures in there of me would be either in profile or straight on, holding up a police identification number.

Unlike miscreant me, Susan was a good girl who thought she heard the call of the wild and decided to try on being bad like a jean jacket. So she started hanging around with me and the crew. That mistake ended in disaster fast. In the end she reeled away from the smoking wreck of her innocence, went to college and studied politics while I went to Vietnam (involuntarily) and studied dead people.

After college Susan lived in Boston, San Diego, and Manhattan. One weekend she returned to visit her family and decided there was no place like home. She married a high-powered entertainment lawyer who liked the idea of living in a small town by the Hudson. They bought a house on Villard Hill, and a year later Susan began running for public office.

The interesting thing was that her husband, Frederick Morgan, is black. Crane's View is a conservative town comprised mostly of middle- to lower middle-class Irish and Italian families not so many generations removed from steerage. From their ancestors they inherited an obsession with close family ties, a willingness to work hard, and a general suspicion of anything or anyone different. Before the Morgan/Ginnetys came, there had never been a mixed-race couple living in the town. If they had arrived in the early sixties when I was a kid we would have said nigger a lot and thrown rocks through their windows. But thank God some things do change. A black mayor was elected in the eighties who did a good job and graced the office. From the beginning townspeople realized the Morgans were a nice couple and we were lucky to have them.

After they moved to Crane's View and Susan heard I was chief of police, apparently her reaction was to cover her face and groan. When we met on the street for the first time in fifteen years she walked right up and said in an accusing voice, "You should be in prison! But you went to college and now you're chief of police?"

I said sweetly, "Hi, Susan. You changed. How come I can't?"

"Because you're horrible, McCabe."

After being elected mayor she said to me, "You and I are going to have to work together a lot and I want to have a peaceful heart about it. You were the worst boyfriend in the history of the penis. Are you a good policeman?"

"Uh-huh. You can look at my record. I'm sure you will."

"You're right. I'll look very closely. Are you corrupt?"

"I don't have to be. I have a lot of money from my first marriage."

"Did you steal it from her?"

"No. I gave her an idea for a TV show. She was a producer."

Her eyes narrowed. "What show?"

"Man Overboard."

"That's the most ridiculous show on television—"

"And the most successful for a while."

"Yes. It was your idea? I guess I should be impressed, but I'm not. Shall we get to work?"

At our traffic-light meeting that summer morning, we finished with my giving Susan a briefing on what had been going on in town policewise the last week. As usual she listened with head down and a small silver tape recorder in hand in case she wanted to note anything. There really was no interesting news. Bill Pegg had to remind me to tell her about the disappearance of the Schiavos.

"What are you doing about it?" She brought the recorder to her mouth, hesitated, and lowered it again.

"Asking around, making some phone calls, putting locks on their doors. It's a free country, Mayor, they can leave if they want."

"The way they left sounds pretty strange."

I thought about that. "Yes, but I also know the Schiavos and so do you. They're both emotional wackos. I could easily imagine them having a big messy fight and storming off in opposite directions. Both probably thinking 'I'll stay out all night and scare 'em.' The only problem being neither thought to lock the doors before they left."

"Ah, love!" Bill said, unwrapping his midmorning sandwich.

"Did you talk to their parents?"

Bill spoke around a mouthful. "I did. Neither have heard a word."

"What's the usual time frame for filing a missing persons report?"

"Twenty-four hours."

"Frannie, will you take care of that if it's necessary?"

I nodded. She looked at Bill and, voice faltering, asked if he would leave us alone for a moment. Very surprised, he got up quickly and left. Susan had never done that before. She was as upfront and direct as anyone around. I knew she liked Bill for his wit and candor and he liked her for the same reasons. Asking him to leave meant something big and probably personal was about to land in that room. When the door closed I sat up straighter in the chair and looked at her. Suddenly she wouldn't meet my stare.

"What's up, Mayor?" I tried to sound light and friendly—the milky fuzz on top of a cappuccino you tongue through before getting to the coffee below.

She pulled in a loud deep breath. One of those breaths you take before saying something that's going to change everything. You know as soon as it's out your world will be different. "Fred and I are going to separate."

"Is that good or bad?"

She laughed, barked really, and pushed her hair back. "That's so you, Frannie, to say it like that. Everyone I've told so far says either 'the shit!' or 'poor you' or some such thing. Not McCabe."

I turned both hands palms up like what else am I supposed to say? "He's going off to grow chili peppers."

"What?"

"That's what my first wife said when we split up. There's this primitive tribe in Bolivia. When one of its members dies, they say he's gone off to grow chili peppers."

"Fred hates chili peppers. He hates all spicy foods." It was clear she needed something safe and inane to say to pole-vault her over the painful admission she had just made. That's why I tried to help with the chili pepper remark.

"How do you feel about it?"

She worked on a smile but it didn't work. "Like I'm falling from the top of a building and have a few more floors to go before I hit?"

"It would be unnatural if you didn't. I bought a coatimundi when I broke up and then forgot to feed it. Do you think the separation's final, or are you just taking it out for a test-drive?"

"It's pretty final."

"Your doing or his?"

Her head rose slowly. She stared at me with flames and daggers in her eyes but didn't speak.

"It's a question, Susan, not an accusation."

"Was your breakup your fault or your wife's?"

"Mine, I guess mine. Gloria got bored with me and started fucking around."

"Then it was her fault!"

"Blame is always convenient because it's so decisive: My fault. Your fault. But marriage is never that clear-cut. He pisses you off here, you piss him off there. Sometimes you end up with a toilet bowl so full neither of you can flush it."

• • •

That conversation made me miss and realize again how grateful I was for my wife. It made me want to see her immediately so I went home for lunch. But Magda wasn't there and neither was Pauline. Different as they were, the two women liked hanging around together. Anyone would like hanging around with Magda. She was funny, tough, and very perceptive. Most of the time she knew exactly what was good for you even when you didn't. She was stubborn but not unbending. She knew what she liked. If she liked you, your world became bigger.

My first wife, the inglorious Gloria, shrunk the world like heavy rain on leather shoes and made me feel like I no longer fit in it. She was beautiful, endlessly dishonest, bulimic, and as I later found out, promiscuous as a bunny. At the end of our relationship I found a note she had written and in all likelihood left out for me to see. It said, "I hate his smell, his sperm, and his spit."

Eating lunch alone, I contentedly sat in the living room listening to my thoughts and the buzz of a lawnmower someplace far away. If her marriage really was finished, I did not envy Susan the next act of her life. In contrast, I was at a place in my own where I didn't envy anyone anything. I liked my days, my partner, job, surroundings. I was working on liking myself but that was always an ongoing, iffy process.

Over the friendly smell of my bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, an increasingly pungent fragrance of something else began to butt in. I didn't pay much attention while eating, but it became so pervasive as I slipped an afterlunch cigarette between my lips that I stopped and took a long, serious sniff.

The nose can be like a blind mole brought up into the sunlight. Below ground—in your unconscious—it knows exactly what it's doing and will guide you: That stinks—stay away. That's good—have a taste. But bring it above ground, demand to know What's that smell, and it moves its blind head around and around in confused circles and loses all sense of direction. I asked out loud, "What is that fucking smell?" But my nose couldn't tell me because that smell was an incomprehensible combination of aromas I had loved my entire life. This is a crucial point, but I don't know how to describe it so it makes better sense.

A whore I visited in Vietnam always wore a certain kind of orchid in her hair. Her English was minimal so the only understandable translation she could come up for the flower was "bird breath." Naturally when I got back to the States and asked, no one had ever heard of a bird breath orchid. And I never smelled it again until that afternoon in my living room in Crane's View, New York, nine thousand miles from Saigon. Naturally my brain had long ago put the aroma in its dead-letter file and forgotten about it. Now here it was again. Remember me?

But it was only one in a swirling, illusive combination of cherished smells. Cut grass, wood smoke, hot asphalt, sweat on a woman you are making love with, Creed's "Orange Spice" cologne, fresh-ground coffee…my list of favorites and there were more. All of them were there together at the same time in the air. Once it had my full attention, neither my conscious nor unconscious mind could believe it.

I had to stand up, had to find where it was coming from or I'd go crazy. The trail led to the garage. I remembered that in our conversation earlier, Magda had said how good it smelled in there. What an understatement! No room freshener out of a can could have matched that deliciousness. Cloves now, the warm healthy smell of puppies. Pine, rain on pine trees.

The car was parked there looking friendly and cooperative. Hadn't the mechanic come yet? If so, why wasn't Magda using it now? The smell of new leather, a new book, lilacs, grilling meat. I kept a tool kit in the trunk. I hadn't tried to start the car yet, but since I was standing right there, why not get out the tool kit just in case?

What registered first—what I saw or smelled? I opened the trunk. The intensity of the odor multiplied by ten. And lying in there was the body of Old Vertue. Again. Under his red collar were the feather from the Schiavo house and the bone I had found in the hole I dug for him.

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Carroll

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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. One of the major themes of The Wooden Sea is that of confronting one’s perceptions—about life, about who we really are, and about what is “real.” After reading the book, what have you discovered about the author’s beliefs about these perceptions? Have your own perceptions been challenged by this book?

2. Discuss what the author seems to be saying about the role of humanity in respect to the universe as a whole. Are we part of some inscrutable cosmic plan, or simply the butt of a vast cosmic joke? And does it really matter if we know for sure? What clues does the author give for his opinions?

3. In describing how the adult Frannie can coexist at the same time as the young Frannie, the younger McCabe says, “Where do you go when you take a nap? Or sleep at night? Someplace like that…. All of who we are and were is always around. Just not in the same room anymore; the same house, but not the same room.” Discuss this concept, both literally and figuratively. Is who we were the same as who we are now? Does time really pass, or is it merely our own perception of time that changes?

4. Frannie has the opportunity to view himself during different points in his life, and to regard his teen self from his middle–aged self, and vice versa. What does he learn from this? If given the chance, would you want to see yourself as you once were? As you will become? Why or why not?

5. Other authors have used time travel to illustrate the illusory nature of life, history, and memory, including Kurt Vonnegut in his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. What effect does Frannie’s experience with time travel have upon his view on his own life and that of his family, especially his father?

6. Frannie’s friend George Dalemwood is described as “having no preconceived notions about anything.” How does this help him deal with the amazing things that seem to be happening? Is this a good philosophy for daily living? How might it be a negative?

7. The aliens explain to Frannie that after creating the heavens and the earth, God went to sleep, and now it is the responsibility of his creations to each create a part of the machine they need to reawaken him. How does this square with the basic tenets of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology, especially the idea that God is always watching us? If God is actually asleep, as the author has hypothesized for the purposes of this tale, how would that affect the consequences of our behavior? Discuss this from the perspective of Frannie, Gee-Gee, and Floon, interpreting their behavior in this new light.

8. What personality traits allow Frannie to cope with the bizarre events that occur? What roles have Magda, Pauline, and Johnny Pentangles played in his personal transformation from a wild youth to a (mostly) responsible adult?

9. At one point in the story, the alien known as “Barry” summons the Beatles to perform for Frannie, demonstrating his godlike abilities. Yet, in the end, it turns out that it is the all-too-flawed Frannie who has a critical part to play in the building of the “world machine.” Do you see any religious parallels to some of the ideals of the major religions? Discuss, including whether you believe this was the author’s intent.

10. After Frannie’s funeral, Astopel and Gee-Gee are using marbles to illustrate the events of the elder McCabe’s life. Astopel throws the marbles into the air, and says, “I could throw them all afternoon and each time they would freeze in a different pattern. The marbles are the events and the people in your life.” Discuss the idea of life as a random pattern of events. Are we doomed to re-live the mistakes of our lives until we get it “right”?

11. At the end of the book, as Frannie dies, he has his epiphany, in which he finally realizes what Astopel and his colleagues were trying to tell him:

That nothing is more important than keeping every one of our individual selves alive. We must listen, and be guided by them. Not know thyself, know thy selves. All of the yous, all of the years….

While, admittedly, we are unlikely to come face-to-face with a younger or older version of ourselves the way Frannie does, can we train ourselves to retain the vivid memories of the “selves” we have been throughout our lives? What tools might be useful for achieving this? What might hinder us from this goal? Is this even good advice to attempt to follow? Why or why not?

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 19, 2012

    Surreal!

    The story starts off with a one-eyed, three-legged dog expiring like an old wounded warrior, and then things get stranger and stranger. “The Wooden Sea” is a novel I picked up thanks to a recommendation in the “2003 Nebula Awards Showcase” as an example of the direction the fantasy genre was heading. And “fantasy” here means fantastical, not medieval.

    I think if I had to give just one label to this book, it would be “surreal.” The book starts off odd, then gets strange, and then gets truly weird. The lead character, a police chief in a small town, was extremely well rendered, and shows some real growth both prior to the timeline of the novel and within the novel as well.

    The novel does suffer from something I think a lot of modern surreal novels suffer from, though... Things are somewhat explained by the end, and the explanation seems contrived and a bit too tidy. Somehow, the magic of the bizarre needs to be left as mysterious magic, and when it gets explained, it’s somewhat of a let-down. (I got this same feeling from Stephen King’s recent behemoth, “The Dome,” but Carroll’s reasoning here is significantly better than King’s was.)

    But if you like strange, give this one a shot!

    4 of 5 stars.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2003

    It's a pretty good book

    I bought this book on a whim... the reviews looked interesting. Whether good or bad, I've definitely never read another book quite like this one. It's a page-turner and a fairly easy, enjoyable read. Carroll's imagination is impressive and it is impossible to predict where the next page will take you. I recommend the book. Although I can't give it the full five stars, I will say that I recently purchased his latest work, White Apples, and am looking forward to starting it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2001

    Carroll's best since THE LAND OF LAUGHS

    Jonathan Carroll should be declared a national treasure. The breadth and scope of his imagination is staggering.The fact he has turned out novel after novel of the highest quality over the past two decades only adds to his stature. A good writer does it once in a while. A great one does it again and again and that is Carroll. I'm embarrassed to say I was so eager to read this book that I bought a bound galley of it for a ridiculous price at eBay. But now that I've read it, I'm glad I did. If you've read the other two books in this 'Crane's View Trilogy' you'll be delighted to know the protagonist is Frannie McCabe,the sexy chief of police. And boy, does he have a story to tell. Jonathan Lethem, who won last years' National Book Award in the US said this: 'The Wooden Sea is one of his funniest, strangest, and most melancholy offerings.' It is also one of his very best.

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    Posted May 15, 2011

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    Posted October 25, 2008

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