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Fiction Historical

A World Elsewhere

by (author) Wayne Johnston

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2012
Historical, Literary, 21st Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2012
    List Price

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Beloved author Wayne Johnston returns to the territory of his #1 national bestseller The Colony of Unrequited Dreams with this sweeping tale of ambition, remorse and hope.

A World Elsewhere is an astounding work of literature with all the hallmarks of Wayne Johnston's most beloved and acclaimed novels: outsiders yearning for acceptance, dreams that threaten to overpower their makers, and unlikely romance. The beating heart of this story is the touching relationship between a father and his adopted son. This sweeping tale immerses us in St. John's, Princeton and North Carolina at the close of the 19th century. Landish Druken is a formidable figure: broader than most doorways, quick-witted and sharp-tongued. As a student at Princeton, he is befriended by Padgett "Van" Vanderluyden, son of the wealthiest man in America. Years later, when Landish and his son turn to Van for help, he invites them to his self-constructed castle and pulls them into his web of lies and deceit.

About the author

Wayne Johnston is the author of several novels. He has won many prestigious awards for his work including the Books in Canada First Novel Award for his debut novel, The Story of Bobby O'Malley, the Canadian Authors Association Award for Most Promising Young Writer, and the Thomas Head Raddall Fiction Award for The Divine Ryans. Both The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York spent extended periods of time on bestseller lists in Canada and have also been published in the US, Britain, Germany, Holland, China and Spain. Colony was identified by the Globe and Mail newspaper as one of the 100 most important Canadian books ever produced (including both fiction and non-fiction).

Wayne Johnston's profile page


  • Nominated, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: A World Elsewhere (by (author) Wayne Johnston)

Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone. Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.

He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent fathermade fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money. He’d told them that this was, at best, all they would ever accomplish.“Whereas,” he’d said, “I will write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived. It may take me as long as a month, but I will not falter.”

It was five years since he’d made the boast and he’d yet to write a word that he could resist the urge to burn.

He’d had but one real friend at Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, who went by Van. They’d met while Landish was sitting on one of the benches that ran along both sides of the path that led from the centre of the quad to the steps of Nassau Hall, smoking a cigar under a gauntlet of oak trees from which a steady shower of leaves fell despite the lack of wind. Van had sat down beside him.

Landish’s first impressions had been vague ones—pale, thin, elegantly dressed. He turned and saw his benchmate in profile: a pale, unblemished face, the sort of vein-marbled temples Landish had always associated with fragility and even weakness in men. Removing a cigarette case from inside his coat, the young man opened it and offered it to Landish until he noticed his cigar. His hands shook so badly he almost dropped the case.

“You’ve chosen the only occupied bench on the quad,” Landish said. The fellow held his cigarette between his third and fourth fingers, pressing his whole palm against his face as he inhaled. His body shook and his lips trembled though the day was unseasonably warm. Landish wondered if he might be ill.

“I’m Padgett Vanderluyden,” he said as he looked away from Landish. “Van, I like to be called. And you are Landish Druken. I hope you don’t like to go by ‘Lan.’ That wouldn’t do. Van and Lan.” He attempted to laugh but wound up coughing smoke out through his nose and mouth. Landish, the back-of-beyonder who scored unaccountably high grades in all his courses but was not, and was never to be, affiliated with any of the clubs, had been sought out by a Vanderluyden. Vanderluyden. Landish felt like demanding that the fellow prove it by presenting his credentials.

But then Van made the first of several odd admissions: he had stayed up half the night rehearsing what he would say to Landish. “I didn’t want to come unarmed. But I’ve forgotten everything that I rehearsed.”

“You stayed up all night preparing to meet me?”

“Yes, I did.”

“It was smart of you to choose a battle of wits. If you’d used your hands, you might not be nearly so gracious, or conscious, in defeat.”

“You see? How am I supposed to answer that?”

Van’s voice quavered so badly that Landish felt a tinge of regret for having spoken to him as he had. He extended his hand and Van shook it. Van next told him that his sister, Vivvie, had died just shy of the age of two. “I had a breakdown over it. I’m thought by everyone, including my father, to be inherently given to breaking down. My father once told me that I would be presumed guilty until I was pronounced dead. Here you are now conspicuously sharing a bench with me in front of witnesses.”

“Guilty of what? Witnesses to what?”

Van told him he was joking.

“Well, at least you acknowledge having parents. Most of the fellows here never speak of whatever predecess pool they crawled out of.”

“All night I tried and could not come up with one line as good as that. I am not only not quick-witted—I have no wit at all.”

“You’re very forthright,” Landish said. “Sometimes it takes more nerve to be forthright than to be wittily ironic. I keep people at a distance with my wit and wind up in solitude—that is not always as splendid as it seems.”

Van smiled and blushed.

Noticing his embarrassed expression, Landish was again about to amend his remark when he noticed a man sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the walkway, six benches along perhaps. He sat side on, smoking a cigarette, staring at them. Not even when Landish’s eyes met his did he look away. He wore an overcoat and gloves and his hat lay on the bench beside him. He seemed to squint appraisingly at Landish. Even now, on Dark Marsh Road, eighteen months since Princeton, Landish found himself looking over his shoulder, especially at night, to see if he was being followed by Van’s bodyguard, Mr. Trull. “I don’t need a bodyguard,” Van had said. “But my father wants people to think I do. Mr. Trull used to be a Pinkerton.”

Mr. Trull, who carried two pistols, stayed out of eavesdropping range but followed Van and Landish everywhere, unselfconsciously conspicuous, a cigarette-smoking sentinel, staring at the ground. Landish imagined him running towards them, a pistol in each hand.

Van had declared himself. How odd. I want us to be friends. Landish knew that he would have graduated Princeton without ever having made a friend if such a declaration had had to come from him. For most of his time at Princeton, he had thought he would remember their meeting as one of the great events of his life.

The closest thing to work Van had ever done was ride a horse. He said he was a good rider and asked what sort of rider Landish was. Landish said he would let him know as soon as he found out.

Landish sat alone, in silence, in the taverns of St. John’s, spending the hundred dollars in “compensation” that had recently arrived from Van. Other than that word typed on a piece of paper, there had been no note of explanation, nothing but the money. He had thought of— and then thought better of—sending it back.

He drank and considered the bargain he had made with his father: send me to Princeton for four years and I will return and give you the balance of my life. The real terms of the bargain were: send me to Princeton so that, for four years, I can pretend that I am not the son of a sealing captain, pretend the man who paid my way does not exist, and I will come back and follow in your footsteps, low though my opinion be of where they lead. Four years of hoping against hope that something will come up so that I don’t have to do for a living what the father I’m ashamed of did to pay my way through Princeton.

When Landish told his father that he wished to be a novelist instead of the skipper of a sealing ship, his father said that a novel was about people who never lived and all the things they never did.

Captain Druken had first taken his son with him to the hunt when Landish was twelve. Landish had sailed on the Gilbert many times by then. Short trips, mostly in the summer. His father began to teach him about the sea long before he stepped on a boat. Landish’s maiden voyage was in a dory that the boy rowed out to the Gilbert. He still remembered how it felt, an inch or two of wood between the water and his feet. It was like standing on a sea-surrounded seesaw.

He’d never been swimming. His father had forbidden it. He said that knowing how to swim would do him no good if he fell into what he called “real water.” It would only make him less afraid of it and someday that might lead to carelessness and mean his death.

“The water is your enemy,” he said. “It has things you want that you will have to take from it by force. It will give you nothing and no matter how little you take from it, it wants nothing in exchange except your life.”

When Landish finished high school, he had come to imagine for himself a life other than the one that he was born to.

“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You could stand eye to eye with any horse.

Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it should be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”

Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud.”

“My father thinks I’m one,” he said.

Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud among his children?

But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.

Landish had doubted it. He guessed that not every graduate from Princeton would practise the modern form of alchemy. It was true of some that the more generations removed they were from the source of their wealth, the less able and inclined they became to increase or maintain that wealth. Landish called it the Law of Layabout Descendants. Van said he was going to build, “cause to be built,” a great house in North Carolina.

Landish told him that, when he was nine, he had caused a campfire to be built and then caused it to be lit.

Van said, “I discovered the site of the house in 1887. The excavations are completed. I plan to live there, alone if I have to, far enough from Manhattan to forget the place. It may sound morbid, but I have to wait for my inheritance to begin the main work.”

It was 1893. Van was building Vanderland now. Landish had read about it in a week-old edition of the New York Times. The Carolina Castle, it was called in the article. There had been a picture of Van reclining on the forest floor at the feet of a team of famous architects and engineers. Van, his elder by several years, looking his age at last. Landish bought drinks for those of his tavern mates who were not afraid to ask him to. They must have thought he was spending Druken money, that his father had relented.

By the time Landish’s story had made it back from Princeton to St. John’s, there were many versions of it, in all of which he had cheated, not to help a friend but to keep from flunking out.

The full four years at Princeton and he came away with nothing, people said. The Druken who imagined he was born to a better fate than captain of a sealing ship. After so many Drukens went scot-free for greater crimes, their name was ruined because it was proved that the family’s first intellectual, the would-be man of letters and refinement, had cheated on a test. The shame was that so many Drukens had died of old age in warm beds before the boy that brought them down was even born.

“You have been played for a fool,” his father said. “Come back to the world in which you count for something. It doesn’t bother me that you didn’t graduate. It doesn’t bother me why you didn’t. If cheating at school is the worst thing you ever do, you’ll be the first saint in the family. I gave you your four years. You said that you would give me the balance of your life.”

But Landish told him he would never set foot on a sealing ship again. “So it doesn’t matter that you cheated your own father. It only matters that some rich man cheated you. Because I deserve to be cheated and you don’t?”

His father was right. That was how Landish had squared it with his conscience. A necessary transgression by a son against his ignoble father to achieve a noble end—which might never be achieved. But he could make amends only by relenting to a life that would destroy him. Even had he been inclined to look for one, he could not have found a job aboard a ship or on the waterfront. Neither his father’s associates nor his enemies would have anything to do with him. His father was the last Druken who could afford not to care what people thought of him. He applied to every newspaper in the city for a job. He sent in samples of his writing and they sent them back.

He found employment in a beggars-can’t-be-choosers kind of school. One day he went there drunk and fell asleep. He woke up to find that all his students had left, his classroom was dark and empty, and a note of dismissal was pinned to the pocket of his coat. Van had told him of the rhyme which other boys used to chant when they saw him: “Padgy Porgie, pudding and pie/Killed the girl who made him cry/When the boys came out to play/Padgy Porgie ran away.”

Killed?” Landish said.

“One of the rumours is that I so hated my infant sister for supplanting me as the baby of the family that I did away with her and that it was all hushed up by my father. It’s absurd, but there you are.”

There you are. The under-built, slender-built Vanderluyden who his father said could not look their lowest servant in the eye, the dud with the long, pale, slender fingers that bent back to touch his wrists, was said to have killed his sister out of spite.

When Van’s father died, he left Van six million dollars, as well as stocks and properties worth about four million. Each of his three older brothers got ten times as much.

Ten million. Henry Vanderluyden’s notion of disownment. “I get it after I graduate. I will sink all of it into Vanderland if I have to.”

“I should marry for money,” Landish said. “No worries then about making a living as a writer. Matrimoney.”

“My mother married for it.”

“Your grandfather made a name for himself. Your father bought one.”

“As I suppose I shall have to someday.”

In the attic on Dark Marsh Road, Landish calculated that had he been thus disowned, he could have given his landlord a seven-hundred-andfifty- trillion-year advancement on the rent.

Though Van had all his life been mocked and hectored by his father, his death left Van so dejected that Landish thought he might fall ill. One day, as they passed a haberdashery, he pointed and said: “Full fathom five thy father lies/those are pants that were his size.”

He was ridiculously pleased when Van, finally, could not suppress a smile. In the middle of his junior year in the spring of 1890, Landish moved out of his dorm room and into Van’s house in town. They were inspired by Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters” to call the hilltop house and its spacious grounds Lotus Land. Van insisted on paying all the rent for a house that was bigger than the Drukens’.

“You could fit this house into one room at Vanderland,” Van said.

“Is the idea of building this Vanderland all that keeps you going?”

“Isn’t that enough? The greatest house in the world?”

They each had a storey of the three-storey house, Van the upper one, Landish the middle. Mr. Trull lived in three rooms on the ground floor. He had his own entrance and there was no connecting passage between his rooms and theirs. “He keeps an eye and ear out in case I leave, I suppose,” Van said. “I doubt he ever really sleeps.”

Van chose as his bedroom the one at the opposite end of the house from Landish’s so that, he said, he wouldn’t be kept awake all night by the footsteps of “a stomping insomniac who can’t compose a word without roaring it out loud.”

“And then I burn the words,” Landish said. “So far, I haven’t left a single word of my book unburned.”

“You really are writing a book — I thought you were kidding and just reading your assignments out loud. What’s the book about?”

“I can tell you it will be a novel. I know little more than that about it myself.”

“You speak so often of Newfoundland, I’m maddened by your infatuation with the place. It’s just your childhood you miss, not Newfoundland,” he’d say. “Your childhood when everyone was nice to you, when you had no enemies and there was no one who was out to bring you down.”

“Perhaps,” he’d say, and then start in about Newfoundland again. He told Van that he remembered the smell of ripening crabapples borne up by the wind from the street below his house in late September.

Editorial Reviews

"Biting wit and brilliant puns. . . . Worth the attention of anyone who delights in Johnston's imagination and the riches of the English language."
Ottawa Citizen
"Marks perhaps his greatest achievement in conveying the emotional state and psychology of tackling one's past and culture."
"Written with Johnston's accustomed verve and humour."
National Post

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