Jonathan Carroll is one of and perhaps the first writer who went on that list of “all I need to know is that the book is out” authors.
I don’t need to know what it’s about. I don’t need to know where or when it takes place. I don’t need to know if it’s called fantasy, mystery, horror or science fiction — because such questions, such words, cannot contain Carroll.
Frannie McCabe is the chief of police in Crane’s View, New York, a town he grew up in and the town he’d happily die in if given the chance, not that death was something that was on his mind until the death of an odd dog that he took in at his office. A dog that like McCabe has the marks of a creature that lived — not just existed — and upon its death he took it upon himself to bury “Old Vertue”.
A small town, a veteran sheriff, a dead dog — it has the makings of a western or a bad country song. At an rate, the death of the dog, the disappearance of a couple in his town, a girl found dead in the school bathroom, his step-daughter’s new tattoo disappearing — the aroma of change in the air would set McCabe on a whimsical story where he will attempt to connect dots while retracing his steps. Like time travel stories?
How about a story that captures the scent of American Pie? About love, family, a coming of age story and a going of age story. When you don’t have to meet yourself to disrupt the space-time continuum, but you may have to hang out with him and perhaps more than anything it presents the idea that there would be value in asking your prior self — a unique individual — questions to see the actions of that person and learn something is not just a cog in the present cumulative. If one could point at a fault there is a point where you think McCabe is going nowhere, where Carroll couldn’t seem to bring a conclusion big enough to pay-off everything he introduced. It may even seem — in reflection — a great opportunity for a more than quaint fictional work without Science Fiction and Fantasy elements missed.
What I think actually occurs is that we see a reasonable and competent man by most standards completely functioning as a man we would rationally think would in an irrational, a magical, situation. So many times in fiction we are shown protagonists who become so by acclimating themselves, to rise to the occasion. To become something they aren’t and never were — something nobody could possibly be. In many cases there may be fall to overcome as well, but routinely we are described this relying on our preconditioned acceptance of this due to exposure in rather flat fiction. Carroll does not stumble in tying up The Wooden Sea, Frannie does, and related to that the end of such experiences are not end of eras in any way a calendar would understand. The Science Fiction element — a universal awakening — is so over the top for a Sheriff of an escapist-alcove, or perhaps rather never escaped, American town that you can feel the gravity of just how beyond being simply odd or disconcerting such situation would be. You would attack this how you know how — with McCabe, the experiences of a hellraiser as a child, a Vietnam Vet, a veteran of couple of marriages, who lives a more than stable life and now respected in the town he once was once ‘that kid’ of.
Frannie is a man who had gone through his ‘cycle’ only to be thrown into something bigger. It is not because he does not have the qualities to identify him as heroic; it is that rarely do we describe the day-to-day, handle shit as it happens manner as such. He is not offered a mantle, he is, when looking back on his life a man with an understanding of service and what we have is a man who doesn’t have all the answers, indeed he doesn’t even know all the questions.
For the fantastic to have an effect, you have to establish a base that we recognize and Carroll nails the towns so many of us live(d) in. Where reputations matter, where people never seem to get away from — and if they do, everybody can recite you the specifics of it. Where downtown is distinguishable only because it has been always been called that, where you’re Smith’s daughter or boy. Where I certainly have no interest in going to such a place now, perhaps the person I will be one day will. It is in such places that America really resides:
“Crane’s View is a peanut butter sandwich — very filling, very American, sweet, not very interesting. God bless it”
From the beginning, Carroll confounds us and it’s not just a mysterious 3-legged dog — man’s best friend — that enters his life. We are introduced to McCabe spouting one-liners, a wife and step-child showing up at the job with jibes and apparent issues and instead of getting a fractured soul, another broken cop getting by on booze — he did keep his smokes — that lives only to confound the world set against him we get a happy man, a loving husband, a pillar of the community, and man who is where he wants to be.
We find a man not looking for anything, but not to the extreme of a man who fears what he may find — he has found what he wants. We are shown choices we can believe. What would you make god do to prove his power? What would you learn if you observed your father when he wasn’t at the moment being your father? What would you want to tell him? In the midst of events of global, and even universal gravity, McCabe is in his hood and confronting these opportunities as if they were what really mattered. So many times, we are told the world is worth saving in fiction, even if grudgingly, and in The Wooden Sea we see why McCabe’s world is. More than that, I’m not a reader who views it as a requirement of the author to make me root for the protagonist of a story to enjoy it, indeed even in my most get-along-gang of moods it’s still a quality that I can’t completely reconcile as not being a least a little slow, but obviously that isn’t to say such stories don’t often represent the best fiction has to offer and one would find it hard not to find some part of McCabe’s journey that is not relatable, that doesn’t at least brush up against something you carry.
The Wooden Sea shares characteristics with others Carroll books in that he rarely puts a new spin on genre conventions, instead it just always seems like his is the right one we had yet to see, as if others were suddenly a heart beat off, a turn of phrase too early, a sentiment just missed. There is a clarity to Carroll’s work that I think is rather distinct. The Wooden Sea’s brand of wonder is one that questions what you see, feel and believe but never what you are actually reading. In fiction we are sometimes — I think — too enamored with stylistic conceit, and I while I agree with Hal Duncan in that style is substance in literature — but Carroll’s style somehow morphs into what should be fashion at the moment of reading instead of vying for next.
I always marvel most at writers who are able to present several stories — many completely different thematically and even in tone –that don’t take away from one another in the absence of recognition. When I interviewed the wonderful Kelly Link she spoke of stories that could be read and reveal something new — a story that grows — and The Wooden Sea leaves more trees to climb, the thought that more secrets lie submerged.
Also, there are aliens.
The Wooden Sea is perhaps not Carroll’s most recommended work but is still a notable chapter in the catalog of someone who is in the argument of being the most noteworthy American fantasist today.