THE BIG CLUNK of its title seems like an obstruction until you say it aloud; then it takes on a kind of musicality. The paradox doesn't end there: Undermajordomo Minor is as difficult a story to describe as it is pleasurable to read. Perhaps a takeoff on Brothers Grimm-type fairy tales, Patrick deWitt's third novel—and the follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers—is a work of fabulation, taking place in a sort of mythic Germanic world populated by barons, tailors, and thieves. But deWitt, a Canadian-born writer who lives in Portland, plays around with his canvas, toying with its mythic elements and adding a few modern ones. Crucially, the book is characterized by the off-kilter humor and the surprising emotional purchase that made The Sisters Brothers so great.
Lucy is a cowardly, dishonest young man who travels by train to a new town to take on the post of assistant to the Castle Von Aux's majordomo. His new situation is a strange one—the Baroness has fled the castle along with most of the servants, and the Baron has devolved into an animalistic madness, disappearing into the castle's dark corners where he practices a nasty habit of gnawing on rats. Lucy's new job requires him to buy food for the dwindling household; in the village he befriends a pair of thieves and falls in love with the stunning daughter of one of them. Meanwhile, a group of soldiers are fighting a causeless, never-ending war on a nearby mountain, and there's also a very large hole just outside the village, waiting patiently for things to fall into it. It's a bizarrely enchanting backdrop.
Some of deWitt's characters are marvelously depicted, such as Mr. Olderglough, the castle's aging, skeletal majordomo, and Memel, the elder of the pair of thieves. Other characters are not so well drawn, like the Baron and Baroness, who barely register beyond a few examples of atrocious behavior. Lucy, for his part, quickly metamorphoses from an unlikeable liar into a vaguely heroic figure; his yearning for the beautiful Klara is palpable and effectively romantic. While his transformation happens perhaps a bit too quickly, Undermajordomo Minor offers a satisfying tweak on the Bildungsroman formula.
It's a discursive book told in quick chapters, and deWitt injects stand-alone stories into his narrative, giving them intriguing titles like "The Inveigling of Klara by the Strange Eastern Stranger, Godless Corruptor" and "The Strange and Terrible Ballroom Goings-On." The result is a fun, galloping read that's appealingly silly at times and fully engrossing at others. For most readers, the question will be if Undermajordomo Minor is as good as deWitt's outstanding The Sisters Brothers. I would say that it isn't, but I don't hesitate for a second to recommend it anyway. While it's not precisely like anything I've read, deWitt acknowledges a number of his antecedents in the front of the book: Italo Calvino, Thomas Bernhard, J.P. Donleavy, Roald Dahl. It's a kids' story for grownups, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.