Since his bleak neo-Bukowskian false start, Ablutions, Portland novelist (and former Seattleite) Patrick deWitt has found a niche in the art-vs-entertainment spectrum, knocking out dark, smart beach reads like The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor. His latest, French Exit, skewers the charmed life of New York’s upper crust with charming eccentricity. This “tragedy of manners” follows Frances Price and her adult son Malcom, high society types who’ve squandered their social goodwill, and fortune, and who flee aboard a ship to Paris. What unspools is a flaneur-y yarn full of gin martinis and screwy side characters: a wine loving doctor, a clairvoyant, and Small Frank, a cat who may contain the spirit of Frances’s corrupt dead husband.
If French Exit lacks the surprising emotional oomph of The Sisters Brothers (the tragic ending here feels thin), deWitt’s an able entertainer and the cast behaves like delightfully effete rejects from an Edith Wharton novel. Aside from a mention of “reality-based TV shows” there’s disorientingly scant evidence of our current age. But if the timeless setting is meant to suggest the disassociation of high society with the present, or the retrograde delusion of the very rich, such critique is mere scenery behind absurd antics and lots of cutting quips.