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William Gaddis: Carpenter’s Gothic

Gaddis’ third novel, written ten years after his second and thirty years after his first, is both shorter and far less complex than its predecessors, with a more or less recognisable plot. The story revolves round Paul and Elizabeth Booth who have rented a house in Carpenter Gothic style, north of New York City. The house is owned by the somewhat sinister McCandless, a geologist, writer and ex-CIA employee, who is given to ranting and raving about all that is wrong with the world and who also seduces Elizabeth. Paul is a Vietnam vet, Confederate sympathiser and the media spokesman for the Reverend Elton Ude. Ude is crusading against evil in the United States. He also faces indictment for bribery and racketeering. Though Paul works for Ude, for example turning a local drowning into a major miracle, there are several conspiracies going on, with each man conspiring against the other. Much of it will come to involve Africa, with Paul spreading the miracle to Africa, Elizabeth, her brother, Billy, and Ude’s business associate, Mr. Grimes, CEO of Vorakers’ (a company founded by Elizabeth and Billy’s father) and father of Elizabeth’s childhood friend, all involved. Of course, nothing is what it seems, as not only do we struggle with the plot but so do all the characters. Paul, who may be one of the worst people in a Gaddis novel, is the one who comes out ahead, seducing a woman at his wife’s funeral, while having made a lot of money out of what looks like an impending disaster in Africa.

Though the plot is certainly complex, it all, more or less, becomes clear at the end, with no-one coming out as a redeeming person. The bad guy wins. People die and we learn once again from Gaddis that the world is a mess, that conspiracy is rife and that there are few redeeming people in it.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Viking