11 October 2015

Books: Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (2015)

One of the biggest things I miss about the closing of Borders was getting Advanced Reader Copy’s of writers books. Most that came were by new authors, but you could always count on an oldie but a goodie (such as Stephen King) from time to time. One book that came in 2011 during the last few months of the companies existence was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It was a darkly comic, Western-inspired story that takes place in Oregon and California in 1851. The narrator is Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie are assassins sent to kill Hermann Kermit Warm who is accused of stealing from the Sisters' fearsome boss, the Commodore. Was it the Sisters fault that the man turned out to be sort of likable?

While the novel, with it’s short chapters and and sparse narrative, sometimes seemed indicate deWitt was penning a screenplay, the book was wonderfully odd. And then, by accident, after reading this book, a remainder version of his first book, Ablutions, came into the store. Of course, as things happen, I’ve yet to pick up the slim book. It’s somewhere here, but at this writing I’m not so sure where it is. Life of a bibliphile.

Anyways, while in Portland working on Something Like Summer, I was surfing through Powell’s and saw that deWitt’s newest book, Undermajordomo Minor, got released. So I scored a copy at the library when I got back. 

And while it’s clear that The Sisters Brothers was a Western (well, western themed, because it really wasn’t about cowboys), Undermajordomo Minor is sort of hard to categorize into a genre. It could be a literary fantasy book, but I don’t think it is. It has tinges of English gothic to it, as well. It may, for me who needs to categorize things, really fairy tale or fable. Well, a fable without a moral. It is certainly a love story and an adventure story but it’s also an ink-black comedy of manners.

“Lucien (Lucy) Minor is the resident odd duck in the bucolic hamlet of Bury. Friendless and loveless, young and aimless, Lucy is a compulsive liar, a sickly weakling in a town famous for producing brutish giants. Then Lucy accepts employment assisting the Majordomo of the remote, foreboding Castle Von Aux. While tending to his new post as Undermajordomo, Lucy soon discovers the place harbors many dark secrets, not least of which is the whereabouts of the castle’s master, Baron Von Aux? He also encounters the colorful people of the local village—thieves, madmen, aristocrats, and Klara, a delicate beauty whose love he must compete for with the exceptionally handsome soldier, Adolphus. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery, and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behavior is laid bare for our hero to observe.”

Once again, deWitt employs short chapters that remind me of what screenplay looks like. But while I don’t find that jarring –it actually propels the story- it may put people off a bit, especially those more literary readers. The prose, which may seem light, is filled with many weighty issues. Much like science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, deWitt is able to give a lot of meaning in short passages. The humor, dark and often laugh out loud, is brilliantly rendered here. Sometimes I often felt I was watching an old BBC costume drama, mixed with Hammer Films spooky castles. The book does take a weird left turn towards the end, but it’s not out of place in the atmosphere deWitt was trying to create. 

But I miss those ARC's because without them, I would have never discovered Patrick deWitt. Now where is that copy of Ablutions?

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