This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 22 September 2015.
Anyone already familiar with Patrick DeWitt’s earlier fiction, like The Sisters Brothers, will immediately recognize his signature tone, which is easy to spot but hard to describe.
It’s sort of arch, breezy commentary, whether it’s coming from the thoughtful, well-spoken-but-naïve hired gun who narrates Sisters or from the third-person narrator of his latest novel, Undermajordomo Minor, which is as hard to categorize as his writing style.
The book jacket suggests it’s a fable, but a fable has a moral. This is more like a fairytale, something wispy and ephemeral, with a half-dreamy, half-nightmarish quality, and perhaps a bit of happily-ever-after thrown in.
Like a fairytale, this story takes place in no definitive time or location. It has the feeling of someplace misty and Eastern European in the mid-19th century. We meet Lucien Minor — known as Lucy — on the day he is leaving home, for the first time, at age 17.
His mother isn’t sorry to see him go, since she blames him for somehow transferring his recent life-threatening illness to his father, who promptly dies. She’s not far wrong, since we see the mysterious visitor who shows up at Lucy’s bedside in the middle of the night, has a quiet conversation with him, and then — in a scene pulled directly from The Green Mile’s John Coffey playbook — inhales the illness out of Lucy and wanders off to deposit it in his father.
Lucy has told the visitor that what he wants from his life is for something to happen. He feels that he has more to offer than do the large, oafish peasants who surround him, a populace who cannot possibly appreciate his more refined, cerebral qualities. Unfortunately, he has no prospects.
Father Raymond, the parish priest who “followed the word of God to the letter and at night felt the Holy Spirit coursing through his body like bird flocks,” helps to find him a position by writing to all the surrounding castles. He receives a single answer from the majordomo of the Castle Von Aux, extending a job offer, which is how Lucy ends up becoming Undermajordomo Minor.
(With this book following The Sisters Brothers, it seems possible to imagine that DeWitt works by dreaming up a clever title and then writing a book to go with it. There are probably worse ways to come up with a subject.)
And so Lucy commences on his journey: Five minutes from home, he meets the man to whom his mother has already rented his bedroom; a delay at the train station gives his unfaithful girlfriend and her hulking new lover time to humiliate him in front of all his fellow passengers; and he watches in the dark train car as a shadowy man and boy methodically rob all the sleeping passengers, and then falls in with them without immediately realizing who they are.
The older man, Memel, and the boy, Mewe, live in the village of the Castle Von Aux. In short order, we meet Adolphus, the exceptionally handsome and charismatic leader of the local rebel army; Klara, Memel’s beautiful daughter to whom Adolphus believes he is betrothed; and some of the denizens of the lightly populated Castle Von Aux, like Agnes the cook and Mr. Olderglough, the self-titled majordomo who uses Lucy as an errand boy.
There are mysteries, like what actually happened to Lucy’s predecessor, poor Mr. Broom; why is Lucy told to lock himself into his room each night; and where is the castle’s owner? We finally meet the feral and practically subhuman specter of Baron Von Aux, a man thoroughly wrecked by his love for a heartless woman who happens to be his wife. When Lucy intervenes to send a note to the absent baroness, a host of unintended consequences naturally unspools.
The story is surprisingly straightforward and unadorned, though the prose oozes with that odd DeWitt charm that makes it compelling. Told from Lucy’s point of view, the tale has a clueless innocence that is both comical and sweet. Dialogue is clipped and formal, but the effect is often laugh-out-loud funny. At those moments when it’s tempting for a reader to conclude that Lucy is a complete idiot, it’s worth remembering that he is 17, an age at which everyone is a complete idiot.
If there is, in fact, a moral to this story, it’s a simple and universal one. When Lucy finds himself as undone by love as the baron, poor Mr. Broom, Memel, and Memel’s best friend, Tomas, he plummets into the underworld (literally) and fights an Odyssean path back to the surface to return to Klara.
When he later admits to his old benefactor, Father Raymond, that he is in love, the priest asks what it’s like, and Lucy tells him, “It is a glory and a torment.”
“Really? Would you not recommend it, then?”
“I would recommend it highly. Just to say that it is not for the faint of heart.”
Lucy is not such an idiot after all.