1835 A simple twist of fate

The Librarianist
by Patrick deWitt

Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2023
$32.99 / 9781487009915

Reviewed by Bill Paul


In the novel, The Librarianist, characters have names like Mr. Baker-Bailey, Chance and Chicky Bitsch, and the one-armed Mr. More. Patrick’s deWitt’s fifth novel is set in Portland, Oregon and follows Bob Comet as he grows up without a father, an “isolated child finding solace in the school library.” At age seventy-one, Bob lives alone in a “mint-colored…. hundred-odd years old” house. He likes long walks where he gazes into the windows of houses and wonders about the lives inside. The plotting in the book is elaborate and alternates between heartache and farce. The narrative flips back and forth in time.

Part of Bob’s backstory isn’t revealed until later in the book. At age 11 and a half, feeling unloved by his mother, he runs away, makes his way to Union Station, and sneaks aboard a train headed to the Oregon coast. The year is 1945. On the train he’s welcomed by two middle-aged women living by their wits who proudly state that they are thespians. June and Ida are dressed in tweed skirts and wear hats with “feathers sprouting from their headbands.” Accompanying them are two small dogs wearing white socks. June and Ida are scheduled to perform at the Hotel Elba in Mansfield. During the timber boom of the late 1930s, the two women were known as a stage act that created a “certain spectacle.”

Sharing a coach car with young Bob, the two women take him under their wing and share with him their perspectives on life—

Ida shivered and stirred. “How could anyone ever sleep with all this chatter buzzing in her ears?” she asked. “It lives and breathes,” June told Bob. “It walks among us.” Ida was suddenly awake and upright in her seat. She looked all around her, as if she’d forgotten where she’d been sleeping. She said, “Where is my Baby Ruth? I want it.” And June, wincing, took a breath and told her friend, “As I was just explaining to young Bob, here: we are prepared for melancholy but we must also and at the same time steel ourselves against the likelihood of sorrow.”

As a young man with a love of books and an interest in becoming a librarian, Bob continues to read widely moving from adventure stories to “dependable literary themes of loss, death, heartbreak and abject alienation.” He’s an underdog, a loner who’s suffered his share of disappointment. With the help of a mentor he attends school, finds work at a public library and soon falls for an assertive, twenty-year-old woman named Connie Coleman who lives with her oppressive father. Bob’s romantic feelings towards Connie are described as someone “seriously sickened by an ancient and terrorific affliction.” The pangs of love. Connie Coleman soon becomes Connie Comet.

Author Patrick deWitt

DeWitt upends the marriage plot by introducing Ethan Augustine, whose character is the complete opposite to Bob’s. The story shifts tone, adding a twinge of uncertainty, tension and, yes, sorrow. Ethan is a person “distracted by his own bitter mysteries,” a man who “almost never felt things like fear, embarrassment, worry, regret.” One afternoon after returning from a hike in the forest with Connie and Ethan, Bob senses the two are drawn to each other. He starts to think about his predicament: “Here was the very beginning of his realization that there was something dangerous moving in his direction and that he wouldn’t be allowed to escape it.” Before long Connie and Ethan are romantically entangled.

After Connie leaves him, Bob is broken-hearted and starts to isolate at home and at one point becomes preoccupied with one of Connie’s dresses “undulating on its hanger.” Out on a long walk years later, he meets an older woman in a store wearing a matching pink sweatsuit and acting odd. She wears an identification card around her neck. It reads: My name is CHIP, and I live at the GAMBELL-REED SENIOR CENTER. Bob escorts Chip back to the centre, noticing the building is “an imposing Craftsman home with medieval touches.” In fact the Center is reminiscent of the Hotel Elba. On the spot Bob decides to muster the courage to volunteer there. The decision comforts him, soothing his feelings of unrequited love and longing.

There’s a dreamlike quality to Bob’s life story. Here’s deWitt’s description of Bob discovering that Connie has fallen under a romantic spell cast by Ethan:

When he pulled into the driveway he saw that the front door was half open, and he wondered what this could mean, and why it made him feel afraid. He walked up the path and into the house, moving from room to room, slowly, stepping softly. He was listening, but there was nothing to listen to. He walked to the living room and saw that the back door was open and that Connie was sitting in the yard, sitting up very straight and staring upward, as one in the grips of beatitude. She wasn’t smiling but her carriage and expression presented a higher joy.

Dewitt is at his best writing dramatic and comedic scenes: a steak dinner at a restaurant with the animated Mr. Baker-Bailey (Bob’s mother’s lover); a conversation between the 11 and a half year-old Bob and the local sheriff in Mansfield on the day World War Two ends. The characters play off of one another, making sense of life in the telling of their stories. The approach is a weakness and a strength in the novel:

“What’s the matter?” asked Bob. “Nothing.” [said Ethan]. No, something. It’s hard to say. I’ll admit to a degree of disorientation, but that’s as far as I’ll go right now. Let’s talk about something else, maybe.” All right,” said Bob. “Why are you so tan and how many suits do you have now?” “I’ve been in Acapulco and I’ve got seven suits” [Ethan replied]. Why were you in Acapulco and why do have seven suits”? [asked Bob].

The New Yorker described deWitt as an “absurdist.” He’s a writer who plays with the conventions of the realist novel. While acclaimed (his comic novel The Sisters Brothers won two national awards), and gifted with dialogue and digressive story-telling, deWitt at times overplays his hand. In some sections of The Librarianist the writing takes over and the story gets lost and wanders off course. That said, this reader would jump at the opportunity to attend a dinner party hosted by the husband and wife team of Chance and Chicky Bitsch or accompany Ida and Louise on their next trip to Mansfield.


East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and non-fiction. Editors note: Bill Paul has also reviewed books by Barbara Fradkin, Dietrich Kalteis, Stan Rogal, Keath Fraser, and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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