Jonathan Carroll,
The Land of Laughs
(Viking, 1980;
Tor/Orb, 2001)

Jonathan Carroll's magnificent first novel, The Land of Laughs, has been out of print for years, but Tor has now reissued it under its Orb imprint. (Yay Tor!) Carroll's distinctive style takes shape in this eerie tale of obsession and the power of the imagination.

Thomas Abbey is a burnt-out English teacher at a private boarding school who lives in the shadow of his famous father, the late actor Stephen Abbey. He decides to take a sabbatical to write a biography of Marshall France, a children's author who had an enormous influence on Thomas.

A chance meeting at a bookstore teams him up with Saxony Gardner, a woman who shares his passion for France's work. Before long, they are more than research colleagues, and together they plan a trek to Galen, Missouri, the small Midwestern town where France settled and died. Once there, they receive a surprisingly warm, if somewhat unsettling, reception from the townspeople, particularly France's daughter, Anna.

Something is not quite right in Galen, however, and the more Thomas works on the biography, the stranger things become. By the time Thomas understands what is happening, it is too late to get away.

Even in his first novel, Carroll demonstrates his unique grasp of the grotesque, a concept which seems to be central to all his books. There are rough places in The Land of Laughs, and it lacks the polish and finesse of his later work. Thomas, Anna and some of the Galen residents are well drawn, but in some ways he neglects Saxony, hinting at what could be important revelations about her, then dropping them, as well as not developing her character to its full advantage.

Still, The Land of Laughs is a remarkable first novel, packed with originality and imagination and overall, more than competently executed and a solid foundation for the rest of his literature to use as a base. Whether you are an avid Jonathan Carroll reader or encountering his books for the first time, after a trip to The Land of Laughs you might not see things quite the same again.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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