The Librarianist

Patrick deWitt

Ecco. July 2023 on sale

It’s hard to imagine the literary world without the novels of Patrick deWitt. Hyperbolic you say? You disagree? You’ll be okay because opinions are like bad habits; everyone has at least one. I came to Patrick deWitt when Houghton Mifflin nudged his debut, Ablutions, into the world around 2010. It’s a slim but potent affair about a bartender. That’s all you need to know. The author was bartending, and Ablutions was his first novel. He handed it to someone who handed it to someone, back when you could still hand someone a manuscript and expect (hope?) it to be read. Stephanie Danler also enjoyed this option and went on to great success. Food service has its perks!  

You’ll laugh, laugh, and laugh again when you read French Exit, deWitt’s novel about a moron son, deluded mother, and a cat possessed by the absurdly wealthy and very dead patriarch who now haunts the deluded mother and moron son. The book is not only funny, but nearly the cause for all the funny. It’s fast, loose, diamond-sharp, and just as brilliant. I had no warning this book was coming, but then I went on to stop complete strangers on the street to redirect them to their local independent bookstore to pick up this laugh-out-loud novel. 

Movie adaptations are either slicker than deer guts or frothy and either way often fall flat. The Sisters Brothers (his second novel) and French Exit were head scratchers but no one at Patrick deWitt’s bank knew the difference. It brings me fever happiness to see a writer enjoy a kind of success reserved for Hollywood types. Patrick deWitt lives in Portland, OR, and seems happier with each book. Ablutions was a touch bleak, but if you pour enough booze on anything you’re bound to get hungover. The 180 of this is Station Eleven (the show) which is miles better than the book. Keep that thing I said about opinions in mind as you clutch your pearls. 

Funny for me, maybe not for you, Patrick deWitt and I ended up at a BEA-era party where the writer Jonathan Evison, myself, and Patrick were standing together, seemingly waiting to be called into an interrogation room for a line-up, when Jonathan Franzen’s then agent approached and asked us if we were writers. Hilarity ensued. Patrick always strikes me with enviable charm, pistol prose, and the dude is funny.   

When The Librarianist landed in my lap I felt lucky to be living in a world where Patrick deWitt is still writing books—really, really, writing books. The jacket copy for this novel doesn’t do what’s between the covers any favors, because this story is a stone-cold badass. In the 2005-2006 section, he calmly lets you meet Bob Comet. Bob is a mashed potato sandwich, a librarian whose wife left him for their best friend. That’s right; there were three, and then there were two. Bob was out in the cold. The pebble-in-your-shoe Ethan comes off poorly—glib, and a pretty boy who not only steals the first half of this book but also gets the girl. When this part of the story ends, something so magnificently cool happens that I put the book down (you will, too) and said out loud to no one, “Holy shit.” It’s Eileen good, if you remember Ottessa Moshfegh’s wood-chip-shower noir of years past.

We’re taken back 1942-1960 where we learn how Bob became Bob. In the start of the book, he helps a “stranger” get back to a senior day care center and thus sets the whole story into motion. His childhood is vital to understanding what kind of psychotropic world deWitt is dragging Bob through. Bob is a dud as a person, a reader of books, with a pulse that never rises above resting. When we enter 1945, the home stretch of the story, I took to reading passages out loud to anyone in my house that would listen. I haven’t been to this kind of party in a long time, and the voice in the last hundred pages is so pure and original that it could almost stand alone as its own book. Remember this chain of events: Bob was married; Bob’s wife disappeared; Bob ran away as a kid; and Bob just watched it all happen. You watch Bob watch it all happen. I sincerely hope you find this book and read it, and then go back and read French Exit (skip the movie), because this kind of writing restores (this month at least) my faith in the great American novel.