French Exit ~ A Capsule Book Review

French Exit ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Patrick DeWitt is an American novelist (b. 1975), whose previous works include The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor. His latest is French Exit, a comic novel about a feckless New York widow, Francis Price (age 65), who spends her money without regard for how much might be left. When she discovers she has spent too freely and her money is all gone, she and her grown son, Malcom (age 32), are faced with the prospect of having to alter their way of living.

Francis Price has a very old cat named Small Frank. We discover, although we suspected it beforehand, that Francis’s husband, Franklin Price, who died twenty years earlier of a heart attack, lives inside (occupies) the cat. Francis didn’t especially like her husband and doesn’t especially like Small Frank but instead seems only to tolerate him. Small Frank goes everywhere Francis and Malcolm go. As a cat, he is completely self-sufficient. He is immune even to the dangers that city streets might pose to any other cat.

When Francis’s husband died in his bedroom, there was some controversy surrounding his death. Francis discovered Franklin dead and then went on a three-day skiing trip without letting anybody know what had happened. She was, subsequently, suspected of some wrongdoing in his death and spent a short time behind bars. It was, apparently, immediately after Franklin’s death that a cat (who later came to be Small Frank), was seen hanging around Franklin and seemed to be tête-à-tête, or at least mouth-to-mouth, with him.

Being the child of rich parents, laconic Malcolm Price never prepared himself to make a living and get along in the world on his own. As a 32-year-old man, he lives with his mother and is as dependent on her for his support as he was when he was a child. He has a girlfriend named Susan but, as with most things in his life, he can take her or leave her.

With all their money gone, Francis and Malcolm are locked out of their fancy New York apartment and need a place to live. Francis’s good friend, another wealthy socialite named Joan, tells Francis that she and Malcolm can live in her apartment in Paris, which is currently unoccupied. Francis and Malcolm board a passenger ship and set sail across the Atlantic for Paris, just as wealthy people used to do long ago. They take Small Frank with them to get on the boat but are told they will have to leave him behind because they don’t have any “papers” for him. With barely a backward glance, they leave Small Frank standing there alone at the point of embarkation. Not to worry, however. Small Frank manages to make his way to Francis’s stateroom, where he makes himself quite comfortable. Francis and Malcolm even take Small Frank into the dining salon with them, where he sits on a chair at the table. When a fussy waiter ejects Small Frank, he comes right back in when the waiter has his back turned, as cats are wont to do.

Francis and Malcolm live in Paris in much the same way they lived in New York; that is, with little thought of the future and blissfully unaware of the consequences of their own actions. Francis has retained a little of her fortune from the sale of some personal items, but she seems intent on spending the last of her money any foolish way she can. It seems she has a plan in mind for the future, or at least her own future. When Small Frank leaves home and takes up residence on the streets of Paris as a homeless cat, Francis consults a “psychic” named Madeleine she and Malcolm met coming over on the boat to try to locate him. Madeleine is able to contact Small Frank through the use of a séance, even though he isn’t dead but just in a bad way living on the Paris streets.

French Exit is perfectly written, far removed from reality, entertaining, clever, droll, witty, whimsical, offbeat, and unlike anything else. If you’re looking for these qualities in a novel, they are here in abundance.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Undermajordomo Minor ~ A Capsule Book Review

Undermajordomo Minor

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

The Sisters Brothers ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a novel set in the American West in the 1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns (glorified errand boys) working for a powerful man in Oregon City known simply as “the Commodore.” The story is related in the first-person voice of Eli Sisters. Eli is more passive and inward-directed than his brother Charlie. He is sympathetic toward animals and doesn’t take very well to killing. Charlie, on the other hand, is an expert marksman and doesn’t mind killing whenever the occasion calls for it. Eli is on the fat side and has freckles. Although we aren’t told much about the way he looks, we get the impression that Charlie is better looking and has better luck with the ladies than Eli. Charlie is the leader and Eli the follower.

The Commodore has his panties in a bunch over what he refers to simply as “the formula,” which he doesn’t bother to explain to Eli and Charlie. He only tells them he wants the formula and he sends them to San Francisco to get it. He has previously sent a hireling known as Morris to get it, but Morris has apparently defected to the other side, as represented by one Hermann Kermit Warm, the inventor of the formula. Eli and Charlie have picaresque adventures as they travel from Oregon to California and, once they are in San Francisco and find Morris and Warm, they discover, through a “journal” left behind by Morris (how convenient!), what the formula is all about.

California has recently been gripped by gold rush fever. Thousands of people are flocking to the West with the hope of becoming rich. The prospectors who don’t extract the gold from the ground pan for it in mountain streams, a tedious pursuit, at best. The formula is a toxic mix of chemicals that, when poured into the river, cause the gold nuggets to “light up” in such a way that they can be easily extracted from the dirt and rock. There are some problems with the formula, however. The gold lights up for only about fifteen minutes, and the formula, when it comes into contact with human skin, is highly corrosive, causing painful, oozing blisters and serious injury.

Morris and Hermann Kermit Warm have a story of their own. When Morris was back in “civilization,” he was a perfumed “dandy,” rather effeminate and obviously gay, although that word is never used. He and Warm have discovered they are simpatico and have allied themselves with each other. It is an unusual “friendship” for the time and place. Although Eli and Charlie are supposed to kill Morris for the Commodore, they join up with Morris and Warm in an alliance that they believe will make them rich and independent of the Commodore.

The Sisters Brothers is a “noir western,” definitely on the dark side but with a touch of “gallows” humor. What happens to Eli’s horse, Tub, is not in the least funny; nor is the fate that befalls Morris and Warm or Charlie’s shooting hand. All in all, though, it’s a breezy and entertaining 325 pages. For the compulsive reader like me, it’s a compulsively readable novel.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp