Jonathan Carroll, The Wooden Sea (Tor Books, 2001)

As a boy, I spent many hours lost in the worlds-within-worlds of Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet (which, at that time, wasn't even a trilogy, just A Wrinkle In Time and The Wind In The Door. A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters came later). It was my first fantasy reading, and I had an almost physical, visceral response to it, feeling within myself an exhilaration, a trembling as the members of the Murray family slid through time and leapt between worlds, exploring tesseracts, time travel and their own deepest fears. I've never felt that same exhilaration, that sense of limitlessness, again -- not with Middle Earth or Narnia, comic books or cyberpunk -- until now.

Jonathan Carroll's The Wooden Sea, which was a New York Times Notable Book in hardcover in 2001 and is now available in paperback, begins with Frannie McCabe, police chief of the small New York town Crane's View, adopting a three-legged dog named Old Vertue. The dog promptly dies in his office. As he is on his way to bury the dog, McCabe discovers that the Schiavos, a recurring source of domestic disturbance complaints, have disappeared, leaving only a blue feather behind. He buries the dog in a remote area only to find, the following day, the dog's body back in his car, bringing with it a Proustian array of pleasant and long forgotten smells from McCabe's past and, you might have guessed, the blue feather.

And then McCabe's life gets strange, with the sudden midnight reappearance of Frannie McCabe himself in his juvenile delinquent, pre-Vietnam days. The wise-cracking, violence prone younger McCabe has been sent (by whom is unclear) to guide his older self in a mysterious quest, upon which the very future of the world may depend.

Jonathan Carroll has long been a critical favourite, and a darling of fantasy readers and writers alike (his most vocal supporters include Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and, surprisingly, Pat Conroy, among others), but he has never fit comfortably within the parameters of any specific genre. The Wooden Sea is a fine balance of accessible, mainstream fiction with elements of fantasy and science fiction and a subversive use of a style reminiscent of American fables, like those of Washington Irving. It's a heady mix, and it makes for compulsive reading.

The Wooden Sea is a mind-bending novel that shifts relentlessly across time, deftly juggling lofty concepts and questions, hinting at answers that may be beyond our understanding as a species. The speculative side of the novel is nicely balanced by McCabe as narrator and guide. Seeing the story through his eyes, we are able to experience not only the heights of imagination and a story that seems perpetually on the verge of being completely out of control, but also the very realistic human emotions of loss, regret and acquiescence that arise through the book. The Wooden Sea is virtuoso storytelling which will linger long in the reader's memory.

[Robert Wiersema]