Patrick deWitt’s latest novel The Librarianist shows how easy it is to take our own stories for granted.
There’s something very New York about Patrick deWitt.
Or maybe Manhattany.
Sure, the writer is a known and proud Canadian, but his stories, his style of writing — there’s something that speaks to a somewhat more polished side of the Big Apple.
In a good way.
“No, I’ll take it,” says deWit, who, on this day, actually happens to be in NYC staying at a friends. “But I’m never not lost here. I’m always late. It’s very muggy. I’m covered in sweat.”
“I’m very much like a marker, a rube, one who is not particularly urbane — but here I am. I do enjoy my time here. So when I get a chance to get away and come, come east, I do.”
Much more to his liking, to his speed and inspiration is Portland, which he has, for some time, called home.
It’s there, actually, where he drew the inspiration for his latest work The Librarianist, which fits wonderfully into his bibliography, that includes his two most celebrated works, the bleak yet beautiful western The Sisters Brothers, and the quiet, wry bittersweet story The French Exit.
The latest tells the story of retired librarian, Bob, and the novel he lived and continues to live without even knowing it. That is, until he volunteers to read at a seniors centre, where the quirky collection of residents help him see clearer and experience more.
“Pre pandemic I was helping out of the senior centre,” says deWitt of the beginnings of the book. “Like the character Bob, I was coming in and just sort of trying to read to the folks once a week for an hour or two, depending on their mood and how they were feeling.
“The introduction of literature into their morning habits was welcome, a welcome addition for some … I came to find that really what they wanted to do is just chat rather than dissect any text. So I wound up more and more just sort of coming by to check in say hello and let them know what’s going on in my life.
“They really enjoyed particularly any sort of gossip from the outside world.”
He notes that at this point, they were just beginning to shoot the adaptation of that last exceptional novel The French Exit, a semi-successful film which starred Michelle Pfeiffer.
He happily fielded questions about what she was like, how Paris was, and other tales from his travels.
“And they were just a curious, charming inspirational bunch. And that was cut short by the pandemic and the senior centrehas since been shut down sadly. But the memory In the sense I had and visiting the place stuck around, so that was part of the original seed.”
The other part, he says, was his desire for a number of years “to write about someone who lived his or her life through books,” although not an author or poet or an editor.
“This could be a small bookshop owner or independent bookshop employee,” he says. “And I came to the idea of a librarian, because it’s a profession that is a little bit less fraught … I like the idea of this person’s relationship to his work being less tied to the bottom line, that is to say, making rent and things like that, somebody who is obsessed with his study of stories.”
Again, so much so that Bob has difficulty seeing the beauty, drama and tragedy of the life he has led, until he starts seeing it through the eyes of the other seniors he’s hoping to inspire.
That cast is as wonderful and wonderfully written as the lead, including a one-time lothario, Linus, who, now wheelchair-bound, gets his thrills from watching women’s tennis with the sound way up.
“I mated, Bob,” the character says wistfully at one point. “I mated with the hostile determination of the political assassin, but also with a love for the deed, like a craftsman. And I thought that it would go on forever, that that was what life was made up for, fornicating in the buffet style with whichever beautiful partner I wanted.”
It is, like most of his work, a story with extraordinarily different styles and tones, which deWitt seamlessly blends into one tale, one voice.
He admits to a fondness for all of the characters he fleshes out — in this novel and his previous work.
“I have a tendency, I think, to gravitate towards characters — especially if they’re the primary character of any one book — who even if they’re complicated, they’re ultimately people that I can relate to. And if I arrive at a feeling of love for the character then I think it can only benefit the work.”
As for the work, it has, along with the author aged effortlessly. Approaching 50, deWitt says he’s more mindful of his mortality, and the finite time he has left to tell more stories, to finish telling his own.
Not that the clock is necessarily ticking louder now for deWitt, just the realization that it is always ticking, and he finds himself at a point where he’s eager to slow it down to a pace where he can truly appreciate it.
“Urgency is, is perhaps too big a word of what I’m feeling,” he says thoughtfully. “But yeah, I mean, time changes, your impulses change. I think in the beginning, it was just to finish a book. You know, and then there’s the question of what comes next.
“And then I just feel that almost in a sense of, not the opposite of urgency, but I sense a sort of slowing down, like I want less from the stories that I ingest, and then the ones that are created as well. Smaller stories, modest, more modest stories.”
He continues. “My taste is changing, I guess, is what I’m saying. And part of that, I think, is learning patience. And learning that you don’t need all these pyrotechnics and fireworks. And again, this is as a reader and as a writer, I just seem to want more still space, more silence, more room.”
Patrick deWitt appears at this year’s Wordfest Imaginairium, which runs Oct.
11 to 15.