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.”
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