09 February 2011

An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Paul Murray)

Paul Murray's Skippy Dies was my arbitrarily chosen favorite novel of '10 (or maybe it was Perdido Street Station? GAH do not make me make this decision!), and I am so very, very pleased to report that his first novel is every bit as good. Reviewers (including me) have thrown around comparisons to Wodehouse, but--and I say this while shamefacedly hanging my head for never having read Wodehouse, just totally watched all the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Woosters--I think Evening also partakes greedily of the spirit of Evelyn Waugh, at his vicious, darkest, funniest best.

The narrator, Charles Hythloday, is a willfully retrograde country gent, living the Brideshead dream of leisure and far too much wine, watching Gene Tierney movies and ignoring the world outside, i.e. fin de 20e siecle, awash in new money and Eastern European refugees. His father (a cosmetic chemist) is dead; his mother in rehab; and his actress sister, Bel, has brought home an absolutely appalling gentleman friend (described by Charles as"bulky and distended, grotesquely so, like one of those self-assembly IKEA wardrobes I'd seen advertised on TV"). Also, his Bosnian-or-something housekeeper is acting a bit batty, and furniture seems to be disappearing. And those dull-looking envelopes Charles has been stashing in the string drawer for Bel to look at at her leisure are, in fact, increasingly dire mortgage notices. Without a Jeeves, what's a Wooster to do?

Charles's voice is so constantly quotable, so hilarious, so affected, so willfully oblivious to reality--of his family, of Ireland, of, indeed, modern society as a whole--just the perfect viewport on the often gritty and terrible truths of the world. This is what reminds me so much of Waugh: the mix of utter frivolity with societal chaos and decay, tragedy and farce cheek to jowl.

There is also, I have to say, some of the BEST worst dialogue I've ever read, from an oh-so-socially-conscious play performed in the erstwhile Hythloday ballroom: "Don't you see? My addiction was a cry for help. Heroin was replacing the love that you, and at a larger level society, weren't giving me." Priceless!

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