A Fable's Foibles: In Gilded Language, This Folk Tale Gets To The Point

Sep 12, 2015

If you've opened a novel by Patrick DeWitt before, it ought to come as no surprise to find that a pivotal scene in his new one hinges on acts unprintable. That is, at least, as far as NPR's family-friendly website is concerned. If you haven't yet cracked one of his books, suffice to say the scene I'm referring to boasts violence, sloppy nudity, acts of lewdness — and one piece of cylindrical lunchmeat, alarmingly misused.

In his first two books — a seedy barroom tale, and a deadpan Western — DeWitt took delight in the dark heart of humanity, mining despair and deviance for the puckish humor he never failed to find glimmering inside. Now, in Undermajordomo Minor, a folk tale of sorts, that black comedy lingers, but it's leavened with something almost more shocking than that unsheathed salami: genuine earnestness.

For this, perhaps, we have Lucy to thank. Full name Lucien Minor, Lucy's the ballast to this book, a self-pitying teen with plenty to feel sorry about. Consider: Spindly, out of place, a compulsive liar who turns out to be terrible at it, Lucy has been unceremoniously nudged from his hometown village and deposited in a lowly job at a castle that looms with Gothic dread — and all in a vaguely 19th-century rural Europe that doesn't have much patience for his type. Out of Lucy's ample flaws, DeWitt threads together a lead character who's worthy of our affection, and who is every bit as bemused by the proceedings as the reader is likely to be.

And that's a good thing. DeWitt is experimenting with genre here, taking elements you might expect to see in a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, or in one of Roald Dahl's darker fables, and scrambling them according to his liking. There's the pair of skilled and squabbling pickpockets, the ominous shadow of an absent baron, the beautiful, conflicted peasant woman to be won — but, however familiar the components may be, DeWitt deploys them with a smirk, and without much concern for logic or steady pacing. All the more fitting, then, that as our trusty guide Lucy settles in at the castle, grapples with the mystery of his missing boss and falls in love, he should have as tough a time acclimating to this weightless world as we do.

For it's a curious story, even more curiously told — at once long-winded and brisk. From one sentence to the next, DeWitt revels in the chance to play the 19th-century bard. His language is elaborate, many of his phrases stately as if borrowed from an earlier era. See, for instance, one anecdote that begins: "In the night there occurred an untoward happening." You can almost see him twisting his replica monocle in glee.

The voice feels a bit put on, sure, but that's kind of the point. DeWitt scrapes this stately veneer against the silly and the serious alike, then turns his lens on the friction — or comedy — that comes of it. That friction works wonderfully in the dialogue, where conversations swing from banter to bickering and back again, all while embellished to the point they often overmatch the trivialities they're concerned with. At times, discussions between Lucy and his superior, Majordomo Olderglough, read more like Abbott and Costello skits than anything out of their era.

For all the ornamentation, the action comes at a sprint. If the sentences tend to take the long way around, the plot is restless to get where it's going. Chapters never last more than a handful of pages, and if, perchance, DeWitt leaves a Checkhov's gun lying about, you can believe it'll be fired before very long. Love crests and ebbs, confrontations come and go and illnesses strike, recede and return; there are times when it felt as if I was watching it all rush by from the window of a passing train.

At the same time, there can be a downside to that inclination to just get to the point. DeWitt seems at times to be in a rush to get all of his bows tied, especially in the novel's final act — when, with t's to cross and i's to dot, his quick pace seems to give way to a simple checklist. Questions duly get their answers, but satisfaction is another matter.

Still, if DeWitt risks an unsatisfying end, it's partly because — out of all the thieving and warring and heartbreak and, yes, the occasional half-eaten rat — he's crafted something worthwhile: humor, and hope.

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