Undermajordomo Minor ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Undermajordomo Minor is a novel by Patrick DeWitt set in an unidentified and unidentifiable time and place. It might be a European country and it might not. The characters travel by train, but there is no mention of cars, electricity or any other modern convenience, so it’s a story that could have or might have taken place a long time ago. It’s set almost entirely in a castle, Castle Von Aux, that is owned by the absentee (at first) Baron and Baroness Von Aux. A seventeen-year-old boy, Lucien “Lucy” Minor, has left his not-very-loving home and traveled by train to Castle Von Aux to take up a position there as a servant. Since his job will entail many and multifarious duties, his title is to be “undermajordomo.” The “majordomo” (if there is one) under which Lucy will be employed is an odd gentleman named Mr. Olderglough, who has been at the castle for many years. Lucy finds out that his predecessor, a Mr. Broom, met an untimely end, but he doesn’t find out for the longest kind of time exactly what happened to Mr. Broom because nobody wants to talk about it.
In the squalid village down the mountain from Castle Von Aux, Lucy meets an odd old man (everybody in this book is odd) named Memel. Memel is a pickpocket and thief of sorts and he has a daughter named Klara, with whom Lucy falls in love. There’s just one problem with Klara, though. She has a boyfriend, an “exceptionally handsome” man named Adolphus. In the inexplicable war that rages in the hills around Castle Von Aux, Adolphus is an important player, a general or something. Adolphus is forceful and is everything that Lucy is not. He claims to love Klara and doesn’t like it that Lucy loves her, too.
At Castle Von Aux, Lucy becomes aware of an oddly deranged man who skulks about the castle at night, filthy and practically naked. Lucy believes at first that this might be the mysterious Mr. Broom but discovers in time that it is Baron Von Aux. When Mr. Olderglough receives word that the long-gone Baroness Von Aux is returning for a visit, it’s up to him and Lucy to take Baron Von Aux in hand, get him cleaned up, and make him seem as “normal” as possible. (This isn’t going to be easy.)
Baroness Von Aux arrives with much fanfare and Lucy sees that she is very beautiful. He learns, then, that Mr. Broom was in love with Baroness Von Aux and took his own life by throwing himself into the “Very Large Hole” up the mountain from the castle. Much to Lucy’s surprise, though, Baron Von Aux has undergone a transformation and is ever so much more presentable than he expected him to be. He can even speak and wear clothes. When Baron and Baroness Von Aux entertain out-of-town guests, the Duke and Duchess and the Count and Countess, Lucy witnesses the strange goings-on of the three couples in the ballroom, which includes a sort of free-for-all sex orgy. Considering what Lucy already knows about Baron and Baroness Von Aux, he can’t be too surprised at their behavior.
Eventually Lucy’s jealousy for Adolphus leads him to the thought of murder. He attempts to kill Adolphus by pushing him into the Very Large Hole, but Adolphus sidesteps him and Lucy falls in himself. He falls for a very long way but, since he lands in water, the fall doesn’t kill him. What he finds in the Very Large Hole is unexpected but makes absolute sense in light of what has gone before.
Undermajordomo Minor is quirky and thoroughly engaging reading. It takes us where we hadn’t expected to go, but when we’re there we find it’s a good place to be. Like The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt’s earlier novel, it is breezy, almost effortless, reading and goes down like Rocky Road ice cream.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp