‘French Exit’ By Patrick DeWitt, a Hilarious Satire of the Rich
It’s hard out there for a sociopathic WASP and her bumbling son. Or at least that’s what Patrick DeWitt leads us to believe in his latest novel French Exit. He serves up some full-powered satire from beginning to end. And it’s everything our broken, divided society could use right now. Say what you will about your personal ideologies. At the end of the day, nothing brings people together like laughing at a fool’s misfortune.
Oh, upon what misfortune these two characters fall! They’ve lost all their money. Someone’s hauled off all their fancy things. To make matters worse, Frances Price, the upstanding matriarch with a mildly irksome prison record, has lost her youthfulness and beauty. Malcolm, her stunted son, has lost his fiancée. What’s this highly Oedipal duo to do? Move to France and dabble in the occult, that’s what! If it sounds weird, it is. But the absurdity is all part of the fun.
There are all kinds of colorful characters who join in on the madness. There’s a needy friend with anger issues. There’s a medium. There’s a “a sleepy-eyed and swarthy man with the hands of a female adolescent.” And there’s a cruise ship captain whose flaccid manhood was so vividly described, I’ll never look at Captain Stubing the same way ever again.
A lot of the story’s success lies in the fact that it starts out as schadenfreude and ends in sympathy. As the story progresses, we begin to feel for Malcolm. He’s a sad sack with acute failure to launch, but he seems like a good enough guy. His mother neglected him as a child, so when she finally started to pay attention to him, he never let go. Fair enough. Actually no, it’s still weird.
Ultimately, the true redemption of character belongs to Frances. Like any good antihero, you hate her until you love her. Behind that stony façade sits a damaged inner child and put-upon wife. She never got the love she needed. When she casually confesses some minor psychopathic infractions like arson and leaving her dead husband to rot—as one does—she comes out on the other side looking like a heroic badass. Best of all, her one-liners are impeccable. The conversation that takes place with Frances and her best friend Joan is flawless: witty, well-timed, and sprinkled with the slightest dusting of emotion so we understand this caricature is an actual human being—and a hilarious one, at that.
For the most part, DeWitt successfully carries out the satire through the entire story. It sags in a couple of places, but then he throws in a zinger, and the story regains its energy. These bizarre people do bizarre things. Keeping the momentum high from start to finish is no small feat. In the words of one of the characters, “These aren’t my normal people.” However, when they’re written well, it’s very satisfying.
(Ecco Press, August 28, 2018)