By Max Porter
Max Porter does damaged psyche well. In his widely acclaimed 2016 debut, “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” — recently brought to the stage by Enda Walsh in a production starring Cillian Murphy — a human-size crow with an outsize personality imposes himself on a grieving father and his two young sons. In Porter’s winning new novel, “Lanny,” despair and unsettling entities are again on the menu, as are hard-won grace and beauty.
The setting is an English village an hour’s train ride from London. At the center of the story is the eponymous Lanny, a 5-year-old dreamer, whose infectious sweetness is matched only by his verbal precocity and otherworldly connection to nature. Around him, in close orbit, are his mother, a former actor and aspiring crime novelist; his father, an often-absent business guy; and a gruff elderly artist now living in self-imposed exile, whom the locals have none too lovingly dubbed “Mad Pete.” Under, around, above and occasionally even within these players is a troubling piece of ancient nastiness — “Lanny”’s leafy answer to “Grief”’s crow — who goes by the handle of Dead Papa Toothwort.
It is through the shapeshifting bulk and foliage of this being, clearly inspired by the Green Man legends of English folklore, that we first apprehend Lanny’s world: “Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter.” Papa Toothwort’s preferred mode of taking the measure of his surroundings is listening, and over the ensuing pages Porter lets spill and snake and undulate across the pages the handsome, banal and ugly bits of the “English symphony” that Toothwort hoovers in: “choir clashes with Benders sadly,” “horrid parents,” “pretty in a smudgy kind of way,” “last glass then bed.”
We quickly realize that getting a fix on Lanny is what all this eavesdropping is about. The little boy’s elfin ways have woken Papa Toothwort and perhaps remind him of some early unruined version of himself. Lanny’s leaping and dashing and exploring and snuggling are equally mesmerizing to those close to him. Pete falls hard for him during the art lessons Lanny’s doting though somewhat distracted mother has persuaded him to undertake, and even Lanny’s father finds himself obliged to emerge from his finance-world torpor enough to actually feel things, like fear and anger, around his son.
Plum-sketching and bower-building Lanny nonetheless remains fundamentally mysterious despite being the object of so much adult attention, and when he goes missing midway through the novel the question asked in different ways by all, “Where’s Lanny?,” takes on additional resonance. We understand then that the little wanderer has never been clearly seen, just longed for. Papa Toothwort, the frightening context for all this human desiring, has stepped into active, nightmare-dealing mode by this juncture, and some of the village voices we have heard only in snatches through the nasty one’s ears get to take the floor.
The ensuing polyphony — while less measured, more gloriously cacophonous — is reminiscent of Jon McGregor’s recent “Reservoir 13,” which was also set in an English village and also took up, through multiple perspectives, a search and its aftermath. “Lanny”’s achievement, like that of its predecessor, is nonetheless all its own. And if “Lanny,” even more than “Grief,” hums throughout with hope and humor, the dark and the difficult are also always there. As one character says to another at novel’s end, “Oh bloody hell, more nightmares.” This reader hopes the response, “Always more nightmares,” speaks to Porter’s future novels too.
Laird Hunt’s most recent novel is “In the House in the Dark of the Woods.”
By Max Porter
210 pp. Graywolf Press. $24.
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