Two young, bright, male students from very different backgrounds meet at Princeton University in the late 19th century and develop such a close relationship that acquaintances accuse them of being “sodomites.” They are both eccentric, and their relationship ends bitterly following an academic cheating scandal.
One of the pair is Landish Druken, a Newfoundlander who, post-Princeton, becomes estranged from his rich father, lives in abject poverty in a St. John’s attic, begins a novel every evening, then, before bed, tosses his prose into the fire. Druken’s father was responsible for the death of the father of a boy named Deacon, whom Druken has adopted and is struggling to raise.
Druken is a flawed hero, a drunkard and wastrel. But he is not outright malevolent like his erstwhile schoolmate, the very wealthy American railroad heir Padgett “Van” Vanderlyden, who lives in Vanderland, a huge castle-like home in the North Carolina wilderness. The two reconnect years later, when Druken moves to Vanderland to tutor Vanderlyden’s daughter. Vanderland is not a happy home, and its owner proves to be more of a fiend than anyone suspected.
Riveting, muscular prose carries spellbound readers along most of the way. The book’s ending is full of surprises – perhaps a few too many. The multiple revelations feel excessive after a while.
A World Elsewhere begins promisingly, as a fable-like tale of two men overwhelmed by their own dreams, but ends in the manner of a second-rate detective thriller. The weak ending to an otherwise accomplished book is frustrating, especially knowing how good Johnston can be. He set the literary world aflame with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams in 1998, but none of his subsequent novels, including this one, has come close to equaling that particular book’s splendour.