Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Books You Oughta Read -- The Land of Laughs

It may be memory playing tricks on me after a quarter century, but I still consider Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs" to be one of the books that welcomed me to California. It may not have been the first paperback I purchased here, but I can't remember any others that preceded it.

I know I bought it at Dark Carnival, then located on Telegraph Avenue, where it intersects with Stuart Street. The store was within walking distance of my apartment, and when I arrived here in 1983 with no job, no car and few friends, I spent a lot of time checking out the local bookstores. I have a clear memory of reading "The Land of Laughs" while commuting on BART, so perhaps it was the promise of a steady paycheck that allowed me to feel sufficiently flush to unlimber my wallet.

In any case, it was the David B. Mattingly cover that attracted me to the book. It's weird and whimsical and menacing, from the George Boothian bull terriers to the shadowy figure glowering through the front door. But what instantly sold me on the book is its voice, the assured cadence of its first-person narration.

"The Land of Laughs" is the story of Thomas Abbey, slacker son of a fabled movie star, who decides to ditch his teaching job and write a biography of his favorite author, Marshall France. The reclusive France died young and left behind a magical series of children's books, including "The Land of Laughs." Abbey and his girlfriend Saxony Gardner travel to France's hometown, Galen, Missouri, and, having been told that they might not be welcome, find themselves unexpectedly embraced by France's daughter and the other townspeople.
Of course, nothing in Galen is as it first appears. To say much more would be to spoil the pleasurable twists and turns of a plot that combines elements of mystery, fantasy and horror. Everything builds to an inevitable, yet shocking conclusion. It's a very well-constructed first novel.

Jonathan Carroll is one of my very favorite writers. His books wrestle with the big questions about life, death, the imagination and the hereafter, but with an easy humor and a cockeyed perspective that's unmatched. I always find something of value in each of his books, but the ones I especially like include "After Silence," "Bones of the Moon," "Sleeping in Flame" and "The Wooden Sea."

I recommend them all, but if you're coming to Carroll fresh, why not start with "The Land of Laughs"? And then start following his Twitter feed, checking his blog and reading the assorted short stories at his site. You're not likely to be disappointed.


Anonymous said...

Someone pointed me to this and I read it with a big smile on my face. Thank you for the good words here and in your reviews of my books down the years. They've always been greatly appreciated.

Jonathan Carroll

Michael Berry said...

Jonathan -- Thanks for stopping by. Glad to put a smile on your face.