Home of the Whopper

Patrick deWitt’s latest novel is a smart and charming entertainment.

Patrick deWitt’s third novel, the ­delightfully titled Undermajordomo Minor, is a picaresque tale that calls to mind such exuberant works as the novels The Princess Bride, Candide, The Giant, O’Brien and Philip Pullman’s version of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Things that Undermajordomo Minor (possibly a nod to Catch-22’s Major Major Major Major) does not resemble much: deWitt’s first novel, Ablutions, about a Los Angeles bartender and his observations of his customers, or his second, The Sisters Brothers, which features two Old West assassins hired to kill a gold prospector. The latter was deWitt’s breakthrough, winning great reviews and mega sales, along with the Governor General’s Award, the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, the Stephen Leacock Medal and the Prix des librairies du Québec, and landing on the shortlists for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Walter Scott Prize. The question is: can deWitt match the spectacular success of The Sisters Brothers?

At its heart, Undermajordomo Minor is a ­coming-of-age story, but it is also a love story, a gothic fable—deWitt has called it a “fable without a moral”—and an escape adventure. It is about family and faithfulness, degenerate aristocracy, the senselessness of war and the value of friendship. But let’s not put too much freight on it. Above all else, this is a smart and charming entertainment.

The novel is set in a nameless, apparently European country, in what seems to be the 19th century. The title character, Lucien Minor, known as Lucy, is a wimpy loner who lives with his mother in the remote village of Bury. He is about to leave for a position in the distant Castle Von Aux, arranged by the village priest. His mother can barely wait for him to be gone.

The novel’s first chapter is titled Lucy the Liar, and indeed, Lucy tells a whopper—several whoppers—to his former love, Marina, as he is heading for the train station to leave forever. He tells her he has been “summoned” to the distant castle of Baron Von Aux, that the Baron’s majordomo sent him a first-class ticket and will be paying him a substantial salary. Then he rounds things off by telling Marina that her fiancé, Tor, is also affianced to another woman in a nearby village: “She is, I understand, several years younger than you.” All of these things are exaggerations, partial truths or outright falsehoods, and they are not the last lies he tells: “Walking away on the springy legs of a foal, he thought, How remarkable a thing a lie is. He wondered if it wasn’t man’s finest achievement, and after some consideration, decided that it was.”

Of course, the feeling does not last. Marina and Tor confront him at the station (where they find him in the third-class section) and mock him mercilessly. He does not learn much from the experience, however. He tells another self-aggrandizing lie toward the end of the train trip, and is once again exposed. His move to the Castle Von Aux is off to an inauspicious start, although he does meet two people, the thieves Memel and Mewe, who will later be important to him.

Nothing about his new situation is what Lucy expected. The village of Listen, at the foot of the castle, is shabby and rundown, the nearby forest is infested by revolutionaries led by an “exceptionally handsome man,” and the castle itself is a disappointing gothic pile: “In fact, most every space in the castle was not in use, and the property in general had fallen into disrepair: the furniture was covered with canvas, the heavy velvet curtains drawn, and clumps of dust had built up in the corners and doorways. None of the fireplaces they passed were in use.”

The majordomo to whom Lucy reports, Mr. Olderglough, is dyspeptic and unprepossessing, “actually quite scruffy,” speaks in cryptic fragments and is remarkably unenthusiastic while showing Lucy around the castle: “‘This is a room,’ he said, pointing as they passed. ‘Not much use for it these days. Better not to go in at all, is my thought. And here, here too is a room, just a room, serving no purpose whatsoever.’” He meets the baron’s only other employee, the cook Agnes (whose cooking is terrible), and is warned to lock his door at night, although not told why. Nor will anyone tell him what happened to the previous undermajordomo, Mr. Broom.

DeWitt’s dialogue is priceless, slightly absurd and dryly funny, full of surprise turns and oddball points of view. The passages between Lucy and Mr. Olderglough, especially, are not to be missed, particularly the scenes in which the majordomo introduces his new assistant to the castle and its routines, which range from the slightly eccentric to the utterly mad.

Life goes on. Lucy’s duties are light and sporadic, leaving him lots of time to cultivate his new friendship with Memel and Mewe, and a budding romance with Memel’s daughter, the beguiling Klara—who is, unfortunately, somewhat entangled with the exceptionally handsome rebel leader. He also has time for mischief, inserting himself into the estrangement between the baron—who turns out to be a pathetic, tattered figure who leaves his room only to wander the castle’s halls at night, catching and eating rats—and the baroness, who has lived elsewhere for a year. The baron sends her daily letters, full of romance and longing. (The letters are “sent” by the undermajordomo, who must go to the train station every day and hold the letter up to be snatched by the conductor as the train roars past.) One day, Lucy writes his own letter to the baroness, telling her how far her devastated husband has fallen as a result of her absence. Much to his surprise, the baroness is moved to return to the castle, and the effect on the baron is immediate and spectacular.

It appears to Lucy that with the baroness’s presence, the castle has returned to normal—and so it has, although “normal” is not what he—or the novel’s reader—might expect. An elegant dinner party, attended by the duke and the duchess and the count and the countess, devolves into a grotesque and violent orgy that involves a large salami, a fruit tart and a candle. The debauchery inadvertently leads Lucy to a character-defining act of (totally justified) angry ferocity, which among other things cements his relationship with Klara.

But then the exceptionally handsome rebel leader Adolphus returns to Klara’s life, tortured nearly to death and requiring 24-hour nursing. In a smouldering, jealous rage, Lucy plots to murder Adolphus by pushing him into the village’s Very Large Hole, from which no one has ever returned. Lucy’s murder scheme, it needs hardly be said, goes spectacularly wrong, and by the time he makes his way back to the village, he has changed dramatically. Furthermore, thinking him dead, Klara has gone away with the baroness. Lucy resigns his post and takes the next train out of the village, determined to find Klara and win her back.

It may sound as though I have given too much plot away, but no spoiler alert is necessary. The plot, although entertaining, is not really the point of Undermajordomo Minor. (It is also outlined in the book’s table of contents.) DeWitt’s faux-formal language, his quirky settings and deliciously comic characters are the novel’s strong points, and they are very strong indeed. The author has stepped confidently into this new style, and does not ­disappoint.