After giving the western genre a makeover in his previous novel, The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt conjures up a dark fairy tale worthy of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in Undermajordomo Minor, a deliciously off-kilter coming-of-age story.
When 17-year-old Lucien Minor, known as Lucy, contracts pneumonia, a stranger comes to his bedside and listens to his desire to live, and for "something to happen." The stranger breathes in Lucy's sickness and then visits his parents' room; the next morning, Lucy is healed and his father is dead of pneumonia. When his mother goes from silently to openly blaming Lucy, a local priest helps him to find housing elsewhere. Always the misfit, a wimp among brutes and a compulsive liar, Lucy leaves his home village of Bury with little fanfare, beyond a passive-aggressive encounter with his ex-girlfriend, before taking up the position of undermajordomo, assisting the chief household steward at the foreboding Castle von Aux.
Lucy finds his new home inhabited by colorful if somewhat disturbing characters. His supervisor, Mr. Olderglough, refuses to tell him what happened to Mr. Broom, the previous undermajordomo. Nearby villagers include Memel and Mewe, an old thief who looks young and a young thief who looks old, respectively; they befriend Lucy but also mock him mercilessly. They introduce Lucy to the lively and exquisite Klara, but to win her heart, he must compete with the obnoxiously handsome and brave soldier Adolphus. The Baron von Aux, Lucy's mysterious employer, is nowhere to be seen, and a feral stranger prowls the castle at night. When the Baron's estranged wife announces her return to the estate, the world turns upside down for its master and staff. Ensuing events thoroughly answer Lucy's wish for something to happen, if not in ways he would have liked.
DeWitt packs his scenes with sprightly banter and quirky circular arguments. His fairy tale world combines elements of the medieval with more modern aspects such as travel by train, creating a partially historic, partially timeless feel. Although readers will find plenty here to chill their spines and possibly turn a few stomachs, a detached levity dances through every moment. One gets the sense that life itself is having a bit of laugh at Lucy's expense, prompting vivid recollections of the pitfalls and pratfalls that come with growing up. Alongside the humor lies a wry wisdom about the hidden strengths of the perpetual outsider. Take special note of this delightful, wickedly sharp gem. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Shelf Talker: A young man seeks his fortune as undermajordomo of a remote and spooky castle in this fable for a modern-day world.