Reviewed in this essay:
A tale of fathers, real and make-believe, is the backbone of Johnson`s new novel. Landish Druken is an exile at home, estranged from his father, starving in a garret, writing a book that he burns every night. On the edge of Dark Marsh Road, he raises the boy Deacon, orphaned by Druken’s father’s own hand.
Shunned from his father’s house, Druken is also an exile from Princeton, where he meets the man who will be an instrument in his life. Padgett Vanderluyden, or “Van” becomes the owner of the great house he builds for himself in the woods of Carolina, and a manipulator with both dexterity and patience. To maintain the only birthright that his father allowed him, Druken turns to Van for assistance, and is offered a life line – the escape from Dark Marsh Road, Newfoundland to Vanderland, North Carolina.
Druken is a massive man, with the solidity of a sailor, who wants to write novels. His own father sneers at the idea. “You think you were meant for writing books?” The failure to meet their fathers’ expectations unites Druken and Van, each of whom hide a talisman of that failure, a shirt button, and more grandly, a top hat made from the skin of a whitecoat seal.
In the woods of the American south, the philosopher-sealer discovers his friend has cheated him again. Lies and cheating are the basis of most of the male relationships in the novel. The only honesty seems to exist between Druken and Deacon, but it is coded in their own special, pun-ladened language. Few of the men “make a contribution” either to others or in the special meaning given to the phrase in Druken-Deacon code.
The challenge that Druken faces to be a good father to Deacon becomes a tug-of-war with Van, who can provide the boy an easy life as his heir. The battle between them to be the better man and father is as big and unwieldy a framework for the story as the house of Vanderland. At times the novel loses itself in the intense personal battle between the men, separating the readers from the characters by a competition that seems only knowable and sensible to those in the midst of it.