Book Review – Frankland by James Whorton Jr.
Novels by James Whorton Jr, of which there are two in print (this and Approximately Heaven), make for easy and entertaining reading. I for one am quite fond of this author’s brand of quirky, off-beat humour. In my review of the aforementioned Heaven I noted that while Whorton’s tale was interesting and often amusing, there wasn’t much of a plot and what plot the book had tended to peter out somewhat toward the end. Well, you might say that Whorton has made a better fist of an actual plot this time around, but the main enjoyment for this reader came from the oddball situations our protagonist John H. Tolley gets into along the way. I suspect that that would be the main appeal of the book for most of its readers.
Tolley, somewhat like Don in Heaven, is a bit of a loser at life. He’s twenty-eight, something of a drifter, has high moral values and a beaten-up car that barely makes it twenty pages into the novel. (Unlike Don, however, Tolley is a teetotaler). One can’t help but suspect that these protagonists resemble the author himself, and thus I have a mental image of Whorton as a kindly but cranky, tall and gangly man. Tolley is in search of some lost documents relating to one of America’s more obscure presidents, one Andrew Johnson. It’s little wonder I hadn’t heard of him. We follow him on his quest through East Tennessee, an area where the author himself lives.
Along the way, Tolley encounters a variety of local characters. The novel’s dustjacket summarises these best: “Van Brun, the gravy-voiced academic in desperate need of a pedicure; McBain, the greens-eating New York newswoman; Boo Price, the neurotic ex-con (and coon ‘treer’ – I added that part); and Dweena, the brown-eyed, shy, and stoic mail carrier.” It’s a strong cast and one that provides most of the humour. There’s also a not-all-there parliamentarian and a couple more shady figures besides. I don’t know why I like reading about this sort of thing, but I do, and Frankland provides the flavour of rural America in generous measure.
Whorton’s work has been compared to that great American novel, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, but while I can see some basis for comparison, this author is considerably less angry at the world than Toole. His protagonist here in Frankland is gently critical of many of the happenings around him, but in subdued fashion. This could hardly be seen as a rant against society. In fact, Whorton’s work is gentle in the best sense of the world. There’s little if any violence in his work, which I appreciated.
The plot cranks along toward a comparatively fast-paced finale, but the scenes that will stay in my mind occur earlier. In particular, there’s a wonderfully sad scene in which Tolley arrives at Luke Van Brun’s university with high hopes of having an essay on Andrew Johnson published, only to discover that his work has been mistaken for that of someone else (there’s even mention of an extra-long footnote about pants, which got a laugh out of me). In the hands of a different author this scene would be depressing in the extreme (especially for readers with delusions of grandeur in terms of their own writing, such as myself), but Whorton never applies a blowtorch to our emotions. Frankland and this author’s earlier novel Approximately Heaven come recommended from me.