The Man Booker Prize shortlist in 2011 was strange in terms of nominees. Two of the listed authors were debut writers, and only one—Julian Barnes, the eventual winner for his masterful “The Sense of an Ending”—was well known internationally. By far that year, the strangest nominee was Patrick deWitt, a Canadian who had published “The Sisters Brothers,” a shockingly bizarre, violent and hysterical western.
He had only written one novel before called “Ablutions: Notes for a Novel,” the searing tale of an alcoholic bartender working on a novel. To go from that to something resembling the equivalent of the book version of a Will Ferrell movie was one thing. To nearly claim arguably the most important book prize in the English-speaking world was something else. The world took notice, wondering what on earth deWitt would possibly turn in next.
The answer, at last, is here: “Undermajordomo Minor,” released just in time for the fall book season. Continuing on from “Sisters,” in “Minor,” deWitt is taking on a genre, this time a fairy tale. Just as “Sisters” was a very, very weird western, nothing in this book is normal in the slightest.
The tale is as simple as most fairy tales. After a couple unfortunate twists of fate involving his family and love life, Lucien “Lucy” Minor finds himself unable to stay in his home village and takes a job at the castle of the mysterious Baron Von Aux, who lords over the mountains of Lucien’s unidentified country. While there, he meets Memel and Mewe, an intergenerational pickpocketing team who keep stealing his pipe; Memel’s daughter Klara, who is Lucy’s true love; and the baron himself, who is in a very interesting mental state after the baroness left him regarding an incident with Lucy’s predecessor, and whose actions ultimately prompt Lucy to realize what is important to him.
Of course, deWitt has no intention of playing this straight. Oftentimes, the book reads very similarly to a version of “The Princess Bride” directed by the Coen Brothers. Entire pages are filled with dialogue, with characters frequently repeating themselves, yet being unaware of doing so, as if they were all characters in a Monty Python sketch. Lucy, for his part, is, despite being a pathological liar with very little concern for people who are not Klara, the straight man. Even though he does his best to be someone like his rival, the hulking soldier Adolphus, he finds himself capable of moments of startling insight and beauty.
This is really deWitt’s trick: hook you with the funny stuff, and then he’s got you. After five-sixths of the book, Lucy witnesses something that I shall not spoil for you, but suffice to say it both revolts and deeply moves him, which leads to all his subsequent actions in the final 50 pages. These pages, which I almost slid through, were startling in deWitt’s clarity of prose and insight into human nature.
Lucy, once almost alien, becomes deeply human. His love for Klara, once a reflection of himself, finally becomes a reflection of them both. It is a section that makes one almost stop in their tracks and understand why it took deWitt at least four years to write a superficially simple book with a final line that broke my heart. Search out for “Undermajordomo Minor,” dear reader, it is a fantastic novel in every sense of the adjective.