The challenge of writing a decent picaresque novel isn’t so much creating a convincing hero full of quirks, nor is it bringing that hero to an unlikely triumph. The trick in creating plausible picaresque heroes is establishing them at a sort of moral antipodes to the prevailing culture that surrounds them—without letting those morality-play dynamics subsume and crush the life out of the story.
A cockeyed picaresque of the Gold Rush-era West, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers drew much of its humor from bumbling bounty hunter Eli Sisters’ startling flashes of self-awareness, always rendered with awkward formality:
My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?
Unlike his feckless and remorseless brother, Eli approaches his violent work with a measure of regret and revulsion as he carries it out anyway. Accentuating such a subtle distinction between two professional purveyors of blunt-instrument brutality improbably preserves the buoyancy of the novel, and keeps its bizarre and jarringly violent situational humor and accumulation of absurd coincidence front and center.
If anything, deWitt takes on an even greater comedic challenge in his new book, the relentlessly wry and often outrageously funny Undermajordomo Minor. Like Eli Sisters, Undermajordomo Minor protagonist Lucien (Lucy) Minor often seems absurdly ill-suited to his lot in life, stumbling into predicaments and characters that seem to mock him at every turn.
While deWitt fixed the Sisters’ adventure in place and time—Oregon and San Francisco, 1851— Undermajordomo Minor operates in the realm of the fable kingdom. From the outset, Lucy cuts a singularly unimpressive figure. Pale, sickly, spindly, given to self-serving lying, aimlessness and ennui, Lucy adopts “the carriage of one sitting in fathomless reflection, though there was in fact no motion in his mind whatsoever.”
His mere survival of the novel’s first few pages is the stuff of magic and myth. Nearly dead with pneumonia, “his spirit slipping between two worlds,” Lucy receives an 11th-hour visit from a long-haired, barefoot man in a burlap sack. “What do you want from life, Lucy?” the man asks. “Not to die,” Lucy replies. Pressed for elaboration, Lucy adds, “Something to happen… I’m bored.” Apparently satisfied with this response, the stranger magically saves Lucy’s life at the expense of his father, who is seized by a coughing fit and dies shortly thereafter.
Lucy’s mother quickly “sours” on her son, blaming him for “unwittingly transferring his illness to his father.” When the mother and son’s cohabitation becomes untenable, a local priest arranges for Lucy to take a job as assistant to the majordomo (undermajordomo) at the far away castle of the Baron von Aux.
Lucy’s new adventure brings him into contact with a host of peculiar characters: Memel, a thief of deep, misplaced conviction; Olderglough, the laconic majordomo, predisposed to proposing and parsing meandering linguistic riddles; Agnes, the castle’s no-quarter-giving cook; Klara, Memel’s beguilingly beautiful and caustic daughter and Lucy’s all-consuming love interest; and Adolphus, a startlingly handsome soldier engaged in an endless war of unspecified purpose or origin. Lurking in the shadows and darkened hallways of the castle is a deranged and demented baron who eats rats and writes florid, beseeching love letters to his estranged wife. Lucy posts these letters each morning by depositing them in the outstretched hand of the engineer on a passing train. As it turns out, carrying the baron’s letters is one of Lucy’s more concrete tasks; besides haggling over grocery purchases, Majordomo Olderglough gives him little else to do each day, and never pays him.
Lucy’s duties at the castle kick into high gear when he takes it upon himself to write the baroness and urge her to come home and rescue her husband from madness, and her anticipated arrival throws the castle into a frenzy of preparations. Foremost among these tasks are capturing and detoxing the baron. The baroness’ arrival leads to a dinner party of eccentric nobles that devolves into carnal horrors reminiscent of the episodes skull-crushing violence that dotted the narrative of The Sisters Brothers. The dinner party proves strangely catalytic in Lucy’s late-blooming discovery of backbone and character.
Along with Lucy’s remarkable encounter with a literal abyss, the dinner-party scene provides a rare interruption of a narrative that typically wraps its action in a gauze of unrelenting drollness. In Undermajordomo Minor, deWitt has somehow created a fable in which the comic narrative voice is impossibly accomplished, and nearly every word is funny.
Throughout the story, Lucy’s elders—particularly Olderglough and Memel—confront him with conundrums half-truth homilies that seem tangentially helpful at best. When Lucy informs Olderglough that the mad baron tried to break into his room the night before, and how strange it seemed, Olderglough replies with Lewis Carroll-like involution: “I don’t know that I would call that strange, in and of itself. What are rooms for if not for entering, after all. Or also exiting. Indeed, think of how many rooms we enter and exit in our span of days, boy. Room to room to room. And we call it a life.”
Meanwhile, Memel, in failing health, attempts to instruct Lucy with an unapologetic apologia for the life of thievery he’s chosen: “My Klara has spoken over the years of a time of reckoning for me. A day when I would feel my feet in the flames, at which point I would repent, and beg forgiveness. But it would seem that time is approaching now, and I can say it truthfully… There is nothing noble in suffering, nothing worthwhile in mindless labors. And if you see something you want, you should take it. Because the fact of your wanting it renders it yours.”
Lucy, once such a diffident, passionless sad-sack, does become positively, heart-swellingly heroic—and not even mock-heroic—by the novel’s end. But the constant confounding distractions from his character arc make it hard to see that coming, and all the more delightful when it does. Partly it’s the bad advice; partly it’s that most of what he learns and determines to make of himself comes of doing the opposite of what he sees. And it’s the comic absurdity of Lucy’s journey from hazy dissatisfaction to focused, driven antipathy that makes Undermajordomo Minor such a gut-busting and satisfying tale.