I’ll read every book Patrick deWitt writes. The Portland author now has four novels under his belt, and each one is wildly, satisfyingly different—from the boozy Bukowski blackouts of his first, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, to the Charles Portis-informed comic western of his best, the phenomenal The Sisters Brothers; from the fractured fairy tale of Undermajordomo Minor to the curdled high-society New York and Paris of his latest, French Exit. The common element is deWitt’s wonderfully aslant window into these varied worlds, and how he casts black humor and surrealist streaks of magic onto familiar literary terrains.
French Exit’s Manhattan milieu evokes midcentury writers like Salinger and Cheever; I was also reminded of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and how that book observed moneyed New Yorkers from the vantage point of a curious child. Most readers, though, will immediately think of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, particularly with the character of scumbag lawyer Franklin Price, who is dead before the events of French Exit begin—although his widow, Frances, suspects he may have been reincarnated as the cat. Their son, Malcolm, spends most of his days disinterestedly aggravating his fiancée over expensive lunches. Frances and Malcolm have reached the end of Frank’s money, and opt to escape New York for a friend’s rent-free apartment in Paris.
Frances and Malcolm are self-obsessed and full of ennui, and deWitt isn’t particularly interested in having them evolve or learn from the error of their ways. French Exit’s bone-dry prose isn’t as funny as deWitt’s earlier work, either, and the story’s thematic undercurrents only appear, faintly, at the very end. Characters drink to excess almost constantly (a shortcut to narrative conflict), and the Parisian section becomes crowded with periphery characters who enter Frances and Malcolm’s borrowed apartment and refuse to leave.
This offsets the two primary characters, who are perhaps a little underdrawn. Frances is basically a terrible snob who skates by on her glamour, while Malcolm is a depressive bore grown numb to the world. French Exit’s best chapter is a self-contained short story in which Malcolm recounts a summer spent at an empty boarding school because Franklin and Frances didn’t want him to come home. It’s suspenseful and creepy and weirdly emotional, and one hopes deWitt’s next book might have more stuff along those lines. I’ll read it in any case—deWitt’s writing is always intriguingly off-center, even when he’s riffing on established tropes.