Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor is a strange book. But wait, don’t put it away- it’s the good kind of strange, the type that makes you marvel at deWitt’s imagination while attempting to make sense of the world into which he’s dropped you. The titular undermajordomo (the assistant to the assistant) is Lucy Minor, a lonely young man who leaves his disinterested family to take a job in the mysteriously derelict Castle Von Aux. Lucy is a pathological liar, a coward and not well liked in his small town- we meet him when he’s sickly and half-dead, yet his parents don’t care.
deWitt’s language is reminiscent of surreal fairy tales and his characters surprise you at almost every turn- none of the characters behave exactly as you’d expect. They are based on clear stereotypes: young hero, elderly assistant, aloof baron, gruff cook, etc., but deWitt throws enough curveballs for even the most blasé reader. Though the novel’s basic plot is an adventurous coming of age story, it creeps toward that genre’s conventions only to twist away at the last second; the book is full of both a certain sweet wistfulness and a despairing darkness. Paragraphs are short, and often break off into side stories of minor characters. It wasn’t clear or obvious where the story would eventually end up. Both dialogue and description are fast-paced and witty, giving the novel a snappy quality that never undersells its intelligence. The elderly majordomo, Mr. Olderglough, is brilliantly portrayed and his weirdly warm conversations with Lucy give the novel much of its charm.
The novel offers no easy ending, no clear resolution, and maintains a tension throughout even its funniest moments. I’ll definitely be checking out deWitt’s prior novels, especially the critically acclaimed The Sister Brothers (I’ve already put it on hold), and I suspect I have a new writer to add to my list of favourites. If you like fairy tale humour or just general eccentricity, this is an excellent choice for you.