cover image The Wooden Sea

The Wooden Sea

Jonathan Carroll. Tor Books, $23.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-312-87823-8

Immensely popular abroad, Carroll (The Marriage of Sticks) has yet to achieve commensurate stature on his native shore. His latest novel combines George Perec's pleasure in puzzles and Philip Dick's interest in metaphysics. Frannie McCabe is the 47-year-old police chief of Crane's View, N.Y., who one day adopts an old, three-legged stray dog. This is typical of his style, as his wife, Magda, recognizes: ""The more goofy they are, the more you like them, huh, Fran?"" The dog, Old Vertue, dies; the weirdness begins when McCabe tries to bury him. The burial is interrupted by a report about the perpetually battling Schiavo couple, who seem to have tidied up and abandoned their usually squalid house. McCabe's investigation of the domicile turns up a bizarrely patterned feather which, along with the dog's carcass, reappears in the trunk of Magda's car the next day, spooking McCabe. Even spookier, Pauline, McCabe's stepdaughter, now has a tattoo that exactly matches the feather. Then McCabe's world turns surreal: he is visited by his teenage self. The adolescent McCabe, who had been a notorious delinquent, leads his older self to Astropel, a black extraterrestrial. The aliens know Crane's View has some connection to the cosmic puzzle of the universe itself, but they need McCabe to figure out the specifics. Astropel shuttles Frannie back and forth in time, piling up such clues as a maniac Dutch millionaire from 2030 and a koan (""How do you row a boat on a wooden sea?"") pronounced by a dead high school girl. Carroll's best set piece shows McCabe watching Crane's View physically fast forward from the '60s to the '90s. Although the story's resolution is weaker than its buildup, this wonderfully offbeat novel will further augment Carroll's growing reputation as the pop writer's pop writer. (Feb.)