A surefire way to get bibliophiles to root for your book is to give them a bookish protagonist like Bob Comet, the 71-year-old main character of The Librarianist, Patrick deWitt’s fifth novel. Bob prefers to communicate with the world “mainly by reading about it. . . . The truth was that people made him tired.” He couldn’t have picked a better career, dedicating 45 years of his life to working as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.
And like a good book, every life is full of stories, some joyous, some sad. The conjurer’s trick deWitt performs here is to lull readers into believing they’re about to follow one particular story, then to make it disappear in favor of something deeper and more nuanced.
The novel’s beginning is straightforward enough. It’s 2005, and Bob lives in the brightly colored house he inherited from his mother. Forty years earlier, his wife ran away with his best friend. Bob has lived by himself ever since.
One morning, Bob goes to a convenience store to buy coffee and sees an elderly woman staring at the energy drinks. The clerk tells him she’s been standing there for 45 minutes. Bob discovers a laminated card around her neck that identifies her as a resident of a senior center. After Bob returns her to the center, the woman who runs the place gives Bob a tour, and he volunteers to read to the residents once a week. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that what follows will be a linear narrative about Bob’s experiences socializing with the facility’s colorful residents, but after a clever plot twist, deWitt takes the reader back in time, first to Bob’s early years as an aspiring librarian and his courtship and marriage, then even further back to 1945, when 11-year-old Bob ran away from home and met two elderly women who recruited him to join their traveling theater troupe.
Reverse chronology is an old technique. Harold Pinter did it in his brilliant play Betrayal, as have many other writers. DeWitt’s transitions aren’t always smooth, but book lovers will adore this large cast of eccentrics anyway. DeWitt’s light touch, memorably demonstrated in his previous novel, French Exit, is on display here as well. The Librarianist is another charmer from an author who knows how to delight.