By Jonathan Carroll.
Oxford. 384 pp pp. $$24.95.

“In February, the month when suicide always looks good to me, I taught a class in Poe…” This and other strange sentences lace the baroque and iridescent world of novelist Jonathan Carroll. Too beautiful for the Tolkien crowd, and perhaps too fevered and hallucinatory for lovers of popular literary fiction, Carroll’s strange hybrids exist in a twilight zone that has both befuddled mainstream publishers and eluded a mass readership. Yet they’ve won him a string of admirers–including Jonathan Lethem, Pat Conroy, Katherine Dunn, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

Even without Carroll’s skillful fusion of reality and fantasy–or should we say, if it wasn’t for it?–he would be acknowledged as a writer of New Yorker caliber whose acute observations about men, women and their relationships radiate poignant truths. Think of any writer who’s picked up a genius award or Pulitzer for their collection of minutely observed short stories of domestic intimacy… Carroll is better than them. Trust me. Carroll’s novels begin in stark, urbane daylight. But gradually–and subversively–they make a gentle 180-degree turn, until by the novel’s end we are inhabiting a haunting modern fairy tale, unrecognizable from the world where we began.

In Carroll’s masterpiece, Sleeping in Flame, what begins as a brooding, witty and bittersweet novel–think Paul Auster or Haruki Murakami–about a film actor and his desire for the beautiful and androgynous Maris York, has, by its end, traversed a world of shamans and sea monsters in an astonishing reworking of the Grimm tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” In White Apples, his latest novel, gone is Carroll’s distinctive, first-person narrative. He plunges us into the surreal almost immediately as Carroll’s philandering bastard of a hero, Vincent Ettrich, discovers that he is dead and has come back to life, though he’s not sure why; neither does he remember the events leading to his death. Things are further complicated when his great love, Isabelle, arrives from Vienna–Carroll’s eternal city. Isabelle is a typical Carroll heroine–complex and absolutely enchanting. And she’s pregnant, with Vincent’s child. A further series of bizarre twists propel him on a courageous journey of earth-shattering importance, where the alignment of the cosmos is at stake. As usual, a parallel universe unravels as the story progresses; Carroll’s novels become entwined in dream worlds, alien worlds and reincarnated lives, and Vincent’s life acquires an epic, even heroic dimension.

This is vintage Carroll: ingeniously plotted, richly metaphorical and metaphysical with a seditious and very witty take on reality. Magic is everywhere in his universe, a universe I’m very comfortable revisiting. The truth about Carroll is that he’s a magic realist who plunders our unconscious for profound emotional truths. He’s been compared to Calvino, Dostoyevsky and even Jim Carrey. A dear friend joked to me that if Carroll Latinized his name and titled his novels The Saucy Pantaloons of Alfredo García he would instantly find an American audience fond of literary exoticism.