by Max Porter (2019)
Graywolf Press (2019)
160 pp

The boy understands. He builds his magical camp in the woods as a gift to them all. They should worship him! He is in tune with the permanent, can feel a community’s tensile frame. Do you see? His intuition?

Lanny Greentree, your miracle ribs remind me of me.

Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, was the most strikingly different of the books on the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist, if not my personal favorite, with the memorable character of Crow, the unsentimental view of the grieving process and the multiple narrative forms. Lanny, his second novel, is even more successful (although perhaps a little less formally innovative), and I will be surprised and disappointed if it isn’t on the 2019 Goldsmiths shortlist — indeed it contains echoes of many previously shortlisted books (Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Ali Smith’s Artful and How to be both, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, and of course Porter’s own effort) but adds to make something unique and wonderful.

Robert Lloyd and his wife are living with their son Lanny in a small (300-house) rural village around an hour’s commuting from the City, where Robert commutes each day (exactly what he does there somewhat opaque to the locals and, it felt at times, to the author as well).

Lanny’s mother is an out of work actress (“She was in a film with whatsiname from you know and he works in finance,” the villagers gossip). Her first name, Jolie, is associated with her in the second part of the novel when she, in her words, becomes a character in a real-life drama:

Time was straight faced, ushering, naming me as a principal character. That way, Jolie Lloyd, away from your son.

Now she is writing her debut novel, a rather sensationalized thriller, and adjusting, gradually, to rural life:

I cursed the naivety of the Londoner moving to the country expecting to find there or in themselves ready-made tranquility. 

Robert and Jolie’s son, the eponymous Lanny, is rather unique, literally away with the fairies, in tune with the ancient voices of the land, given to beyond-his-years wise pronouncements, and a free spirit:

In comes Lanny clicking and murmuring like the peculiar transmitter device he is.

Another villager is a once famous, now elderly artist, Peter — “Mad” Pete to the locals:

I don’t think my covering all the trees up by the cricket pitch with plaster-of-Paris after the Great Storm did me any favors.

Lanny, Jolie, and Robert all find comfort in their friendship with Peter, Lanny in particular learning art from him.

And over and below the village presides the novel’s other memorable character, Dead Papa Toothwort, a local variation on the Green Man: “Say Your Prayers and Be Good To, Or Dead Papa Toothwort is Coming for You.”

Dead Papa Toothwort is as old as the village, listening to and feeding parasitically off the voices of the villagers — “Dead Papa Toothwort exhales, relaxes, lolls inside the stoke, smiles and drinks it in: his English symphony” — which in the novel literally swirl across the printed page, giving us and him a picture of 21st century rural life, warts and all, as well as some clues as to what is to come:


As Peg, the oldest inhabitant of the village and keeper of memories, notes of Papa Toothwort:

He’s been here as long as there has been a here. He was young once, when this island was freshly formed. Nobody was truly born here, apart from him.

But Dead Papa Toothwort’s favorite taste is Lanny’s voice, as the quote that opens the review suggests. He sees Lanny as a kindred spirit. And as the first third of the novel ends, Dead Papa Toothwort decides to make a rare direct intervention, one that will change the lives of the villagers and of Lanny and his family:

He has done this before but never with such sincerity. He means this terrible thing. He’s meant it forever. He makes a once-in-a-century effort, whistling his dream into being, setting the village up for its big moment. By the time he gets to the edge of the woods he has crumpled into nothing more than a whiff or a suggestion, he is only silent warm crepuscular danger, and the badgers and the owls have seen this before, and they know not to greet him, but to hide.

Highly recommended.

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