The Librarianist: A Novel
- By Patrick deWitt
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Connor Harrison
- July 11, 2023
A droll, uneven tale about the trials of a bookish loner.
Around midway through The Librarianist, Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, we arrive at the year 1945, a few days before the conclusion of the Second World War. Bob Comet, 11 years old and dissatisfied with home and a mother who doesn’t understand him, has fled on a train and then a bus to the Hotel Elba in Oregon.
It’s on this runaway journey that he meets two elderly traveling actresses, Ida and June. Like many of deWitt’s minor characters, they are eccentric, coasting by on a kind of sharp-edged whimsy. Finding that Bob is following them aboard the bus, June quizzes him on the why and what of his circumstances. He only shrugs:
“Bob shrugged a third time, and here June set her hand upon his shoulder. ‘Bob, the shrug is a useful tool, and seductive in its way; but it is only one arrow in the quiver and we mustn’t overuse it lest we give the false impression of vacancy of the mind, do you see my point?’”
The novel opens much farther in the future. It’s 2005, when Bob, having awoken from another dream of the hotel, is 71 years into a life defined by the art of the shrug. Living alone in “his mint-colored house in Portland” left to him by his mother, he has retired from his career as the local librarian and spends his time “reading, cooking, eating, tidying, and walking.” He is, as deWitt carefully puts it, “not unhappy.”
What quickly becomes clear, however, is that this not-unhappiness comes from decades unruffled by the drama of other people. Instead, Bob lives vicariously through literature, first poring over adventure stories and later graduating to “the dependable literary themes of loss, death, heartbreak, and abject alienation.”
Eventually, of course, as with all introverts and recluses, life outside the page comes knocking. The first knock arrives during one of Bob’s regular miles-long walks. Stopping at a 7-Eleven to buy coffee and a paper, he finds a woman by the name of Chip, who, according to the cashier, has been “standing at the rear of the store facing…the refrigerated beverages” for 45 minutes.
Chip, as the lanyard around her neck explains, is loose from the Gambell-Reed Senior Center, to which Bob returns her. It is at the facility that he begins to volunteer (urged on by some unnamed feeling) and where he is befriended by the head nurse, Maria, and her elderly charges.
The time at Gambell-Reed progresses steadily from the light patter shared between Bob and his new companions to the heart of the novel: Connie Coleman and Ethan Augustine. This narrative leap takes us back to Bob’s early 20s, when he is newly hired at the library and feeling an “uncomplicated love for such things as paper, and pencils, and pencils writing on paper.”
It’s at the library that he meets Connie and Ethan, who become, respectively, his first romantic and fraternal loves. For a brief, sunny period, Bob is not alone. After marrying Connie, with Ethan as their witness, he is adored by both — until Connie and Ethan fall for each other, that is.
That’s no spoiler, as we’re warned early on of the affair, the fallout from which breaks over Bob’s life like a dire illness. Whereas Bob remains a serial shrugger — but devoted to Connie as best he can be — Ethan is both beautiful and instinctive, swaggering into trysts without trying. When Bob first meets him, Ethan is hiding outside the library from a cuckolded husband carrying a handgun; later, a spurned fiancé stabs him with a steak knife. People either want Ethan dead or in bed or both.
This section of The Librarianist, where Bob discovers he’s not even the center of his own love story, is where deWitt’s prose is most impressive. “Here was the very beginning of his realization,” the author writes after the trio concludes a hike that leaves Bob separated from the others, “that there was something dangerous moving in his direction, and that he wouldn’t be allowed to escape it, no matter what clever manuever he might invent or employ.”
The rest of the novel, unfortunately, pales a little in comparison. Bob’s extended memory of the hotel and the cartoonish characters he meets there seems too thin after the saga of Connie and Ethan, and the plot struggles to remain taut. Still, deWitt allows ample room throughout for the turns of phrase and humor he’s best at: witty sentences and concise character descriptions that sparkle like old-fashioned gems.
Above all, The Librarianist succeeds in giving us, in Bob Comet, a literary figure as tragicomic and alien as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. “He continued to dream of Hotel Elba,” we’re told of Bob late in the book, “the halls empty but resonant with the sense of someone only just departed.”
Connor Harrison’s writing has appeared in the L.A. Review of Books, Evergreen Review, Action, Spectacle, and Literary Review of Canada. He lives in Montreal.