In the hamlet of Bury, some time long ago, there lives a young man named Lucy Minor who is in need of an attitude adjustment. If he doesn’t know that, then at least, to his credit, he knows he’s in need of employment. So he accepts a recently vacated position at the evocatively named Castle Von Aux, leaving behind several beleaguered people he has managed to disappoint. This decision, deWitt promises in the opening pages, leads to many further calamities, “including but not limited to true love, bitterest heartbreak, bright-white terror of the spirit, and an acute homicidal impulse”.
You get a good sense early in the picture of the broad brush deWitt is painting with: like his previous novel, The Sisters Brothers, which was Booker-shortlisted, Undermajordomo Minor is an excursion into the mechanics of story. It both plays in the margins of its genre’s conventions and attempts to exploit their grandeur. In this case, it’s a delightful and diverting riff on the European folktale.
Once Lucy finds his way to the castle, the plot gears grind into motion. Letters must be delivered to a missing Baroness, with strict instructions never to open them. A pipe keeps being filched by an affable thief and returned just as nonchalantly. There is a very large hole, called the Very Large Hole, that Lucy’s predecessor has disappeared into. And there’s a mysterious warning to lock his door at night, because someone is testing the doorknobs.
With the exception of a horrific dinner party scene, which reveals that what the rich and cloistered get up to for fun is far worse than their subjects could imagine, the mysterious promises of Castle Von Aux are stronger than what they’re obscuring. Wisely though, the latter half of the book wends its way to an unexpectedly rich character study.
This is spurred by a romance between Lucy and Klara, a nice-natured girl from the village. Of course, Klara’s promised to a swarthier man who occasionally pops home from the mountains. We’ve seen plenty of heroes such as Lucy before: young men who ping-pong between venal and tender. Some of this seems to be excused by his age, while some of it’s probably burned into him. Lucy is vulnerable enough to appeal to the reader; he’s only foolish when attempting to be wiser. It’s a strength of this novel that its conclusion has nothing to do with achieving wisdom. CR
Granta, 352pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Patrick deWitt, Undermajordomo Minor". Subscribe here.