The opening scene of Patrick deWitt’s “French Exit” is so perfectly staged that a curtain seems to rise on his elegant creation. “It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air — a tasteful party was occurring.” Frances Price, leaving early, makes her excuses to a tipsy, clinging hostess. A discreet struggle ensues until Frances’s adult son intervenes. “Malcolm found the hostess pliable; he peeled her away from his mother, then took the woman’s hand in his and shook it. She watched her hand going up and down with an expression of puzzlement.”
The reader too may be a little confused. This certainly does not seem like a Patrick deWitt novel. Manhattan’s Upper East Side is, after all, worlds away from the 1850s frontier of deWitt’s astonishing epic “The Sisters Brothers”and from the gothic realms of the later “Undermajordomo Minor.” What’s more, these characters belong in a Noel Coward play. Or so it seems until Frances and Malcolm, dallying outside, attract a panhandler. “He swayed in place, and Frances asked him, in a confiding voice, ‘Is it possible you’ve already had something to drink tonight?’”
“‘I got my edges smoothed,’ the man admitted.” The conversation continues in this vein, concluding with Frances asking, “Would you really drink both gallons in the night?”
“Yeah, yes, I surely would.”
“Wouldn’t you feel awful in the morning?”
“That’s what mornings are for, ma’am.”
Now the reader can relax. Within a few sentences, the comic brilliance that sparked deWitt’s earlier adventures ignites this “tragedy of manners” and Frances Price, “a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years,” is revealed to be another of deWitt’s sublime eccentrics. The widow of Franklin Price, a brutish lawyer, Frances, along with Malcolm and a cat named Small Frank, relishes living in reckless luxury. (The panhandler, by the way, gets $20.) But when Frances’s inheritance runs out, her treasures must be turned into cash. “I have a somewhat dirty job that needs doing,” she tells a fawning estate liquidator, “and you are a somewhat dirty person.” This unpleasantness transacted, the Prices decamp by ship to Paris — where else? — to live in the spare apartment of good old Joan, Frances’s only friend. Before leaving, however, Malcolm must break the heart of his long-suffering fiancee. “He was a pile of American garbage,” the defeated Susan observes, “and she feared she would love him forever.”
Then we are off. Rarely has a transatlantic voyage and its limited diversions been so pithily evoked. Frances and the captain fall into bed, his penis “a glum mushroom caving in on itself” while Malcolm experiences “unremarkable intercourse” with a clairvoyant named Madeleine and pays a drunken visit to the ship’s morgue. “You get a body a day,” the ship’s doctor explains, “That’s the industry standard for an Atlantic crossing.” Such zaniness is tricky; it can curdle fast into cuteness. But deWitt is too elliptical a writer to turn downright whimsical, though he comes close when the plot develops a supernatural twist.
In Paris, Small Frank goes missing and must be found because, as his name hints, he is Franklin Price in feline shape and his widow wants revenge. The narrative intermittently returns to the wounding past — to the Price marriage and Malcolm’s desolate childhood — while in the present it becomes clear Frances has her own exit plan, as her oldest friend suspects. “I told Don I had to run to Paris because I thought you were going to kill yourself,” Joan announces, “He was fiddling with the television remote and he told me, ‘Tell her hello, if you get there in time.’” Wisecracks like these detonate throughout “French Exit” warding off sentimentality. Indeed, the novel is so mannered, so arch, that even intimate moments are barbed with slyly traded quips.
“Do you and Don still make love?”
“Every year on his birthday.”
“But not on your birthday.”
“Just a nice dinner for me, thank you. Sometimes we go again around Easter.”
Echoes of the British writer Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose influence deWitt acknowledges, are strong, with some of the funniest moments arising from the stylized dialogue. But the comical decorum of deWitt’s style, so wonderfully incongruous in the wilder settings of his previous novels, loses some of its force in this airtight, rarefied world — a world from which Frances does escape, leaving Malcolm to find his own bumbling way. “He felt nimble as he navigated the sidewalk,” the novel ends, “moving around the bodies, men and women alone in their minds, freighted with their intimate informations. Crossing the square at Saint Sulpice, he split through a stream of nuns, who, as insects interrupted, lost the scent of their paths and spun away in eddies.”