High adventure and low characters (Prose and Cons)

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Good stories beget good stories. At least, that’s three-time novelist Patrick DeWitt’s story.

DeWitt’s third novel, “Undermajordomo Minor,” released last month, continues his penchant of reinventing genres — this time, the fable.

UNDERMAJORDOMO MINOR BY PATRICK DEWITTDeWitt’s personal story begins with the peculiar discovery of his work. While tending a Los Angeles bar, he plied a famous screenwriter with free booze, then begged the writer to take a look at his first manuscript. The screenwriter liked what DeWitt sent him, and DeWitt was on his way.

“The Sisters Brothers,” DeWitt’s second novel, reimagined the Western as a picaresque tale of bloody, darkly funny heartbreak. The book became an international bestseller and finalist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, after which DeWitt moved to Paris and set out to write a novel about a Wall Street investment adviser. When the book, with its necessary fixation on money, bored De- Witt, he knew it would bore his readers, too.

Enter “Undermajordomo Minor.”

While living in Paris, DeWitt had been reading European fables for pleasure. He fell in love with the sweetly violent nature of the old folk tales and, upon abandoning his Wall Street book, set out to write one of his own.

“I found myself writing for the reasons that you begin writing in the first place,” he told Canada’s Globe and Mail. “Which is a love of language, a love of story and character. And I never looked back.”

Good that he didn’t. “Undermajordomo Minor” is a ribald tale of high adventure populated by a cast of low characters who murder, connive, thieve and copulate—all of which serves to keep a smile on the reader’s face.

DeWitt’s modern fable follows the adventures of likably unlikeable Lucien “Lucy” Minor. Seventeen-year-old Lucy takes work as the underling to the majordomo at an oddly off-kilter castle high in a snowy, vaguely Alp-like mountain range. There, in classic bildungsroman fashion, young Lucy falls in love and confronts treachery, betrayal, murder, and likely the most absurd use of a sleeve of salami ever committed to paper.

Much of the enjoyment of “Undermajordomo Minor” derives from

the obvious pleasure DeWitt takes in concocting complex descriptions of his characters’ absurdities, as when he chronicles Lucy’s return “to the swamp of his own self-pity, which was a relief, for as a habitat it was magnificent in its direness; and since it had been created from his own fabric, he felt some stamp of gratification as he wallowed there.”

An assured, fast-moving tale filled with that sort of clever, confident wordplay, “Undermajordomo Minor” offers fine and fun companionship for the coming long evenings of fall and winter.

Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of seven books, most recently “Mountain Rampart,” the second installment in the National Park Mystery Series. Visit him at scottfranklingraham.com.

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From October 2015, Prose and Cons. Read similar stories about , , .