Book Review: Mr. Breakfast, by Jonathan Carroll


In 1980, Jonathan Carroll launched his now more than 40-year writing career with a dazzling fantasy classic, “The Land of Laughs.” In it, an aspiring biographer of the great children’s author Marshall France visits the seemingly idyllic hometown of Galen, Mo. As any fantasy reader knows, idyllic cities always turn out to be rather…otherwise. In this case, the menacing weirdness begins with a talking dog.

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Quick with a label, critics have called Carroll a magical realist, a slipstream novelist, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and the creator of modern fairy tales. He ticks all these boxes, while remaining elegantly sui generis.

His prose is essential, refined and fast, sometimes slightly comical, always immensely engaging. At the same time, his storylines, including that of his new novel, “Mr. Breakfast” — describe the sudden irruption of the uncanny and the terrifying into our familiar everyday world.

His more than twelve novels and almost 40 stories regularly feature ghosts and demons, reincarnations, wishes come true, sinister dream worlds, characters that overlap from book to book and, last but not least, changing and alternative realities that would make even Philip K. Dick’s head spins. No wonder among Carroll’s most ardent admirers are Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and Joe Hill.

Throughout his work, Carroll regularly links an almost surreal strangeness to a love story, often involving a privileged but psychologically wounded protagonist.

Just consider his first four novels. Stephen, in “The Land of Laughs,” lives in the shadow of his movie star father who ruined his life; Joseph, in “Voice of Our Shadow” (1983), is obsessed with a delinquent younger brother, whose death he accidentally caused; Cullen, in “Bones of the Moon” (1987), mourns the unborn child of his miscarriage; and Walker, in “Sleeping in Flame” (1988), discovers the incredible truth about his mysterious origins.

In Walker’s case, those revelations involve — and this is the kind of thing you always find in Carroll’s universe — a very real and sinister Rumpelstiltskin and other figures from the Grimms’ darkest fairy tales.

While “Mr. Breakfast” is a pure pleasure to read, bringing to mind the themes and sleight of hand associated with films such as “Inception,” “Total Recall,” “Groundhog Day” and “Back to the Future.”

Graham Patterson, 42, has just broken up with the woman he loves, Ruth Murphy. She wants children, he doesn’t. For years, Patterson worked as a comedian, hoping to make it big, but finally realized it was never going to happen.

So, his life in tatters, he buys a new car and a camera, with the aim of slowly making his way from New York to Los Angeles, where his wealthy brother will give him a job. But in North Carolina, the new machine breaks down unexpectedly, and while waiting for it to be fixed, Patterson stumbles upon a tattoo parlor run by anonymous middle-aged Anna Mae Collins.

Fascinated by the exquisiteness of her art, Patterson flips through her design book and decides to be inked with an image of “a bee in a frog’s stomach in a hawk’s stomach in a lion’s stomach.” Few people get this tattoo, Anna-Mae tells him, but getting it marks the turning point in Patterson’s life.

Science fiction is more than just a reaction to the present

I don’t want to spoil any of Carroll’s surprises, but I can safely say that Patterson discovers that he has been granted a magical gift: the ability to experience three different possible futures.

He can continue into the present reality, where he will eventually become a world-famous photographer. Or he can become the successful comedian he’s longed to be. Or he can marry Ruth and settle for quiet domestic bliss.

Furthermore, he can go in and out of each of these “lives” up to three times, but then has to stop sampling and choose to stay in one, at which time he will either instantly forget about the other two or that things could never have been different.

I would like to point out that this is just the setting of the novel. A flurry of fantastic things will happen to Patterson and a small circle of recurring characters.

He’ll periodically encounter the overbearing boss from his high school days – who is technically dead, but also an emissary from the afterlife sent to guide or mislead him. He’ll be kidnapped and temporarily reincarnated, dodge ravenous flying dinosaurs and, most disturbing of all, revisit his hometown of Crane’s View (the setting of several previous Carroll novels). Yet despite it all, Patterson ponders the overarching question: What ultimately matters most to him? Wealth and fame? Satisfying job? Art? Love and family? Basically, “which was better: a special or a peaceful life?”

Such metaphysical questions, which recur throughout Carroll’s work, invest “Mr. Breakfast” with a peculiar moral dimension.

As Patterson jumps back and forth through time and between his various possible existences, he gradually comes to understand “how his behavior affects and shapes the lives of others even after he is long gone.”

Along the way, several women provide advice, warnings, and insights. Anna Mae coaches “Gray-ham,” as she calls him, on how tattooing works. Young Ruth, sounding both wise and corny, reminds him that “life is just what it is. All we can do is work hard and love hard, try to do the right things without getting tripped up by our egos, and hope black men stay away for another day. Greek widow Antheia Lambrinos, however, offers Patterson more concrete advice and reveals that she too bears the same curious tattoo.

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During the main narration of the book, Carroll gradually reveals Patterson’s genius as a photographer, his ability to observe closely, to see the artistic possibilities whether in a deserted diner called Mr. Breakfast or in a girl with autism playing merrily under the rain with two dogs.

Of course, paying attention is also the writer’s main skill. When Patterson notices a diner’s daily specials, Carroll suddenly reminds him of “chipped beef on toast, his favorite meal when he was a kid. His mother made him for lunch every Saturday. Their tradition: just before noon he’d set up a portable metal tray in front of the television and his mother would bring in the sliced ​​beef on toast just as his favorite cartoons were about to start. If this isn’t pure happiness, what is? But when Patterson visits his middle-aged high school sweetheart, she is left heartbroken and heartbroken.

‘Mr. Breakfast’ is Carroll’s first novel in several years, but it seems to me as masterful as his previous books. It will surprise you, make you laugh and scare you – and then, just when you think it’s over, add several twists extra before bringing this Rubik’s Cube of a story to its proper emotionally mute conclusion.

Melville house. 272 pages $27.99

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