The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

As I have mentioned before, I have fallen behind in my book reviews. Despite slacking off a bit in my reading, I have read three books and failed to post a review. In an effort to remain disciplined, I have decided to post a review of each of the books despite having read them some time back.
Back in February I read Jonathan Carroll’s latest novel White Apples and enjoyed it. So when I saw
The Wooden Sea
on sale at half-priced books, I picked it up. I have to say if you liked White Apples I think you would like The Wooden Sea. Both are at their roots about relationships, about their characters. What makes the books unique, however, is a large dose of imagination; surrealism you might even say. The plots are full of twists and turns that take you beyond reality, as we know it and to fantastic but interesting alternative viewpoints on life.

The Wooden Sea is about Police Chief Frannie McCabe and is centered in the small town of Crane’s View, New York. McCabe was an egotistical and violence prone troublemaker as a youth but has accepted middle age and settled down in his former hometown; the one he always wanted to escape. Into this setting limps a three-legged dog named Old Vertue. McCabe feels sorry for the sad creature, which passes away in his office, and decides to give it a decent burial. But things don’t go as planned when the dog refuses to stay dead. What follows is a convoluted tale involving time travel, aliens, and the meaning of life.
There are a lot of meanderings in this book but at the center is an explanation of creation and the meaning of the universe that is like something out of Scott Adams’
God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment
But as I noted above, what is really at the heart of this novel is the character of Frannie McCabe. The story is told from the first person perspective and this allows Carroll to explore and illuminate the life of McCabe. Through the complicated plot twists McCabe ends up working with a younger version of him. This causes McCabe to think about what he was like as a young man, and the impact of the choices he made. McCabe ruminates on the egotism, the molten energy and violence, and the desire to “go somewhere” that dominated his early life. Those of you that grew up in small towns will probably recognize the character type. But at some point McCabe simmered down and settled down. Divorced, aging, and humbled somewhat he appreciates what the small town of Crane’s view has to offer: stability, familiarity, and the chance to feel wanted and appreciated:

I like living here because I like familiar things. I always put my shoes in the same place before going to bed; I eat the same meal for breakfast most days. When I was younger I saw enough of the world to know I was not meant to live in countries whose postage stamps picture elephants, penguins, or coluber de rusti snakes. No thanks. Like others of my generation who went to Vietnam and were traumatized by the experience, I traveled a lot before returning home . . . Crane’s View is a peanut butter sandwich – very filling, very American, sweet, not very interesting. God bless it.

McCabe also realizes the importance of family. Up until his wife and stepdaughter are threatened McCabe wasn’t sure he could love another person more than himself. But as bizarre event follows bizarre event McCabe realizes that his family is the most important thing in his life. In the end, McCabe fully rejects his selfish and aimless youth. I won’t spoil the ending but McCabe makes the ultimate sacrifice for love.
The Wooden Sea is an interesting and entertaining read. If you are looking for tight plot structures and plausible events, however, Jonathan Carroll is not for you. Instead Carroll gives you wandering but at times poetic prose and interesting characters with even more interesting plot twists. Next time you need a book for the beach or something to read in the park, pick up a Jonathan Carroll novel like The Wooden Sea. After all we could all use to expand our imagination these days.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).