Enthusiastic kudos for multi-genre "Wooden Sea"

by Steven Kantor | 6/25/01 5:00am

"Never buy yellow clothes or cheap leather. That's my credo and there are more. Know what I like to see? People killing themselves 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 minute he inhales. Good for you, sport! Long live nicotine, stubbornness and self indulgence," narrates Frannie McCabe on page one of Jonathan Carroll's new novel, "The Wooden Sea." Hardboiled small town sheriff McCabe maintains this ironic detachment, which comes in handy when a feather, a bone and a three-legged dog named Old Vertue limp into his life, heralding the chaos that soon follows.

"The Wooden Sea," like Carroll's other works, fits best between literary genres. Categorizing an artist is a very slippery task. Trying to describe Jonathan Carroll feels like using a birdcage to hold a block of ice " the contents keep wanting to drip out. Straddling the divisions between fantasy, horror and romance, Carroll's work resists definition. His stories are simultaneously dark and illuminating, intimately familiar while stunningly surreal, dangerous yet inviting; Carroll's work has the rare ability to warm the spirit while chilling to the bone.

I recently read two of Carroll's books " "The Land of Laughs," his first novel, and his most recent, "The Wooden Sea." Reading these novels (which were written 21 years apart) back-to-back in two days, it was abundantly clear that while over the past two decades Carroll's writing has evolved most delightfully, his work shows few signs of aging. Whether the story is about a biographer's startling discoveries (Land of Laughs) or a small-town cop's metaphysical adventures (Wooden Sea), each narrative explores the possibility that things just aren't as they seem. The worlds Carroll creates are like ducks on a pond " placid on the surface, paddling furiously below " and his books are windows into the invisible, albeit fictional mechanics of existence.

At the same time, though, Carroll reads are enormously fun. One of his short stories, published in the collection "The Panic Hand," is about the seven "Lamed Wufniks," earthly people who each constitute an equal fraction of God. Giving the powerful Wufniks charmingly human idiosyncrasies " one Wufnik has a penchant for stealing cookies from the supermarket -- the author seamlessly blends the unbelievable with the mundane. The result is a body of work that is a delight to read and a pleasure to debate; the final words of his novels always leave me with my brain feeling like jelly, but with a smile on my face.

Sometimes, but not always, Carroll's books are deeply related to spirituality. His characters bear no allegiance to any specific deity; they might be described as faithful agnostics. Some might call this blasphemous, but I'll just call it human. The people he writes about wrangle with the same issues as the rest of us, and their individual takes on religion offer a glimpse into Carroll's postmodern conception of faith.

The cover of "The Wooden Sea" flaunts an endorsement by Pat Conroy: "Jonathan Carroll is a cult waiting to be born." With this I most heartily agree. Carroll has a very large European following, but his books are rarely found on the shelves of American bookstores (the Barnes & Noble in my town carries only one of his thirteen titles). Thankfully, Amazon.com and the like make Carroll easily available. Seek out "The Wooden Sea" and enjoy a book, and an author, unlike any other.