Under Major Domo Minor by Patrick deWitt: Sisters Brothers goes gothic

Review: Gormenghast meets The Grand Budapest Hotel, with guest appearances from Kafka at his most lighthearted, in this playfully black comedy of dubious manners

Under Major Domo Minor
Under Major Domo Minor
Author: Patrick DeWitt
ISBN-13: 978-1847088697
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £12.99

Gormenghast meets The Grand Budapest Hotel, with guest appearances from Kafka at his most lighthearted, in this playfully black comedy of dubious manners and a diverse range of invariably intriguing antisocial behaviour, including obsessive love.

When asked what he most seeks from life, our anti-hero, Lucien Minor, better known as “Lucy”, replies: “not to die.’’ On being further pressed, he admits to wanting “Something to happen”. Lucy’s wish is granted, several times over.

Just when it seemed unlikely that Patrick deWitt, or anyone one else for that matter could approach the unique mayhem of his second novel, The Sisters Brothers (2011), the Canadian has – yet again exploiting his flair for offbeat dialogue delivered with whacky formality by a cast of crazies who may not be particularly nice but are polite, sort of.

As our story begins, Lucy, only child of remote parents, is about to leave his modest home deep in an anonymous valley; his widowed mother is pragmatic. The noticeable absence of emotion disappoints Lucy although “it was true he had never been particularly close with his parents; or rather, they had never cared for him in the way he had wished them to, and so they’d never had an opportunity to achieve any stable partnership. He was mourning the fact that there was nothing much to mourn at all, he decided.”


Only six months earlier, Lucy had been on his deathbed when a mysterious stranger appeared. Lucy is in a bad way and regrets “his paltry life”. The first of many “somethings” happen, beginning with Lucy’s recovery. His otherwise healthy father suddenly dies and his mother, sensing a trade-off, blames the boy.

Oppressed by a sense of guilt, Lucy consults the local priest, Fr Raymond, who spends entire days on his own because the villagers have no interest in religion. The lonely padre also favours adventure novels, and he is only too eager to listen to Lucy’s woes. He agrees to help the boy, writing “letters of introduction to every castle within a hundred kilometres”.

There is only one response, from Mr Olderglough, the major domo of an estate “in the remote wildness of the eastern mountain range”.

As early as this, it becomes obvious that deWitt has a plan, and the narrative races along, despite the bizarrely laconic exchanges and slow-moving grace of the writing. The author has no intention of being hampered by history or geography: the castle is located deep within the heady recesses of his imagination.

In common with The Sisters Brothers, Under Major Domo Minor is never quite a fairy tale, despite its many nods to the genre. Like deWitt's revisionist western, it insists on being read at a single sitting – it is that readable and funny. And there is the promise of a menace that may or may not materialise.

Lucy is not particularly likeable; he is a liar and a coward. But he turns out to be an astute observer, and his justified bewilderment proves highly amusing and all too human. Before leaving town, he decides to spin an elaborate lie to his former girlfriend. It duly backfires. DeWitt enjoys moving his vivid yarn along, and he can afford to include the odd digression, such as a vicious little aside featuring an assistant train engineer intent on revenge.

Daring thieves

On the journey to his new life, Lucy dozes off only to wake as his fellow passengers are being robbed. He does not intervene yet by chance is spared any personal loss. He also becomes acquainted with Memel and Mewe, a daring pair of thieves who turn out to be linked by a romantic tragedy as well as their liking for practical jokes.

Lucy’s arrival at Castle Von Aux is heightened by the appearance of the most memorable character, Mr Olderglough, who “stood in the underlit entryway, an elegantly skeletal man of sixty or more outfitted in a suit of black velvet. His white hair was uncombed or unsuccessfully combed: a lock spiralled past his brow and over his eyes to roguish effect. His right arm hung in a sling, his fingers folded talon-like, nails blackened, knuckles blemished with scabs and blue-yellow bruising.”

Mr Olderglough informs Lucy that he is recovering from a nightmare about eels. He then proceeds to show him the castle:

“Mr Olderglough was not an enthusiastic guide. ‘This is a room’, he said, pointing as they passed. . . . And here, here too is a room, just a room.’”

The castle is freezing and Lucy is soon informed of his chores. One of them is posting the daily letter sent by the baron to his runaway wife. The method is unusual, as Mr Olderglough explains:

“‘Every morning you will find a sealed envelope on the side table in the entryway. This will be taken by yourself to the station, where you will meet the nine o’clock train. The rain will not stop. The letter will be passed off to the train engineer himself, and achieved thus.’ He lifted his good arm high above his head.’

Mr Olderglough also has a pet: “Peter was a deeply antisocial bird . . . he squatted sullenly on his perch, looking not at but through his visitors.” He refuses to sing. Lucy observes his superior and also glances around Mr Olderglough’s accommodation, thinking that it was “a room in which time hung more heavily than was the norm”.

Of the many peculiar characters Lucy and the reader encounter, the most conventional is Klara, a beautiful maiden who becomes his love interest. There is a catch – she is already involved with a local soldier, Adolphus, who is initially referred to as “the exceptionally handsome man” and belongs to an army that wages war because someone has to.

Lucy does win Klara, but there are complications. Late in the novel three men are paying the price for their doomed relationships, and it falls to a fish tethered to shoe laces to attempt to lead the trio to safety.

Farfetched? Never. The story is funny and the novel, while slight, is immensely entertaining, complete with romantic rivalries, thwarted love and a hilarious extended bickering sequence concerning leadership of a rescue party conducted by two men who had never previously thought of making an escape.

Under Major Domo Minor does lack the pathos and unexpected profundity of The Sisters Brothers, but it is nevertheless very funny and possesses flashes of tender humanity, if largely expressed through the weighty sighs of Mr Olderglough, the depressed major domo.

There is also a wonderful moment when the wayward youth Memel looks away while speaking with Lucy, who notices that the boy is silently crying. “Everything is ending” he says. For the outsider Lucy, however, despite his sober experiences, the future remains to be discovered.

It is to be hoped that Patrick deWitt had as much fun writing this stylish caper as readers will have devouring it. Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times