by Patrick deWitt
When, in reading, I come across outlandish fantasies or nightmares relating to the plot, I often enjoy them immensely. I think back to Vonnegut’s Der Arme Dolmetscher: The protagonist’s heroic fantasy, made up with only the limited German phrases that he knew, absolutely made that story. In Gogol’s Ivan Fedorovich Shponka and His Aunt, the protagonist’s ridiculous nightmare about his anxiety concerning marriage was definitely great fun. And now, though not taking up as prominent a position in the story, the assistant train engineer’s drunken nightmare of his wife’s cheesy affair in Undermajordomo Minor really started us off on the right foot; it showcased some great humour writing, with a bit of a chilling conclusion, somewhat mirroring the overarching story.
Undermajordomo Minor is, for the most part, a comedy of manners. Lucien (Lucy) Minor gets a position at the Castle Von Aux, under the majordomo, Mr. Olderbough. He slowly comes to realize that all is not well at the Castle, or with Baron Von Aux, for that matter, but competing for the love of a fair young woman in the nearby village keeps him from running, even when events make him worry for his life. The comedy largely comes from conversations between Lucy and Olderbough, heavily laced with the prim and proper speech of the aristocracy of the early 1900s, made hilarious due to the absurdities that often come out of Olderbough’s mouth. Add in conversations Lucy has with the local pickpockets, Memel and Mewe, and the story starts to feel like Dickens by way of Wodehouse. However, deWitt gives the story his unique touch by adding in startling and disturbing moments. What we’re left with is a book that occasionally made me laugh out loud, but also kept me on edge when reading at night in my dark basement.
Much like in The Sisters Brothers, each chapter in Undermajordomo Minor is broken up into short sections. Adding this to the great comedy and very suspenseful moments makes the story not only enjoyable, but also a veritable breeze to get through.