David Carkeet's first novel, Double Negative, was a murder mystery in which the only witness to a crime was a toddler who had not yet mastered standard speech. The story's amateur detective was a philologist who unmasked the criminal when he cracked the child's babbled code. Carkeet's next novel, The Greatest Slump of All Time, told of a major league baseball team whose polyglot members one by one lapsed into clinical depression. Although they kept winning, they doubted the value of victory when it failed to make them happy, and found themselves facing mid-life moral crises while still in the first flush of youth.
Both these premises were, to say the least, from left field. But in each book, Carkeet demonstrated a gift for devising oddball characters and situations, then persuading the reader that they were real. In his third novel, I Been There Before, Carkeet's puckish fantasy finds Mark Twain, who was born during the 1835 appearance of Halley's comet and who died during its return in 1910, brought back to life once more by the comet's visit in 1985. From there the implausibilities mount. Twain engages in time travel. When events do not turn out as he likes, he causes whole swatches of his life to reoccur. His daughter Susy, who died in 1896, appears at a press conference as a ghost in early 1986. A character purporting to be God shows up to explain that all of human existence has occurred merely so that he can win a bet about human survival against a deity in another solar system. The core of the book is perhaps the biggest effrontery of all: in his guise as the reincarnated Twain, Carkeet offers letters, notebooks and short stories that allegedly come from the master of the tall tale. They project what his deflating wit would make of the modern world, not least the scholarly cottage industry that has grown up around Twain's own work.
By rights, I Been There Before--the title is the last sentence of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--should seem arrogant, pretentious and convoluted. It involves dozens of characters, five or six distinct plots and more than three dozen "documents" supposedly written by Twain and his interpreters, some of them verging on Freudian exploration of the writer's guilt-ridden subconscious.
But Carkeet's skill is equal to his ambition. Once again he has turned a daffy concept for a novel into a stimulating display of wit, erudition, humanity and narrative force. He weaves his diverse strands with cunning and charm and adroitly sustains suspense in what could easily have been a one-joke story. Part of his persuasive technique is an absolutely deadpan, matter-of-fact tone. Another part is the structure of the book as mystery, in which events are explained long after they happen.