Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One was at least the most fun to read of the three books, even if it doesn’t quite have the others’ literary standing. This was Waugh’s first novel published after what is today considered his masterwork, Brideshead Revisited, but is more of a return to the satirical comic novels that fill most of his bibliography.
In The Loved One, Dennis Barlow, a young English “poet” who seems incapable of writing two lines of quality verse is working at a pet crematorium in Los Angeles when his benefactor, the screenwriter Sir Francis Hinley, is sacked by the studio that employs him and promptly hangs himself. While arranging for Sir Francis’ interment, Dennis meets Aimée Thanatogenos, the cosmetologist who applies makeup to the corpses before their viewings. He pursues her as she is also pursued by Mr. Joyboy, the prissy embalmer who still lives with his imperious (and somewhat batty) old mother.
The Loved One clocks in at a scant 164 pages, but within that length Waugh packs in enough mockery for a book of twice its length. Waugh had spent time in Southern California working on the adaptation of Brideshead and the bulk of the satire in the earlier part of this book is aimed at Hollywood, both its industry and the area’s way of life. Once Hinley is summarily dispatched, which leads to a hilariously morbid conversation on the proper procedure for fixing up and displaying the corpse of such a suicide, Waugh turns his firepower toward the American death industry, with a tour of the “Whispering Glades” cemetery that is so fatuous it would seem absurd if it didn’t tie so closely to reality.
If there’s a flaw in The Loved One it’s a question of what Dennis sees in Aimée, who is rather a dim bulb and doesn’t bring anything to the table other than looks. En route to blasting the American film and mortuary industries and the superficiality he saw in American culture at the time, he stinted a little on character development, and when one-third of the love triangle dies, there’s no emotion involved – although, of course, it does generate a few more twisted laughs. It’s not as funny as Scoop or Decline and Fall, but if you enjoy a vicious satire it’s still one of the funnier books I’ve read this year.
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio appears incongruously at #24 on the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, since it’s not actually a novel but a short story cycle revolving around the residents of the rural town of the book’s title. (That’s not the list’s only error; the book at #8, Darkness at Noon, was originally published in German. And it doesn’t include Beloved. But I digress.) Anderson’s work was a landmark in American realism with frank treatment of sex, religion, drink, and depression, but like many books that break barriers it reads as dated today because the stories underneath this realistic treatment are so often thin.
Anderson begins the book by explaining that each story that follows is about a character he calls a “grotesque,” someone feeling the loneliness and isolation of life in a small town, each for his own unusual reasons. These are merely slices of life, a glimpse at a character and a back story, but often very little in the present; the only story that moves beyond that is the four-part mini-cycle called “Godliness” that traces one family through several generations and the disappointment of the patriarch in the lack of a male heir to his nonexistent throne. One character, the young reporter George Willard, who gravitates toward an escape to wider horizons as the book goes on, perhaps because he alone sees the whole town for its limits and the unavoidable ennui of a place with such narrow horizons. He never gives the reader insight into the town’s social structure, and while the town itself is the one aspect tying all the stories together, even its physical layout is only evident from the map provided before the first page. I didn’t love Winesburg, Ohio, and I didn’t hate it, but I think I’ll have a hard time remembering it because of how little actually occurs, and how the loneliness of the characters never fully came through for me.
John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle (#63 on that Modern Library list) is a tragicomic novel about the family of that name struggling with life in their Massachusetts fishing village as their circumstances change, the world changes, and their two sons strike off to make their way outside of the confines of the small town where they grew up. The book’s most central character is Leander, the family’s father, who decides at this late stage of his life to try his hand at writing and begins keeping a journal filled with sentence fragments and a mildly comic mix of the mundane and the sad, particularly where his own emasculation (a comment on the rise of feminism in our society?) becomes evident, foreshadowing the book’s final passages.
One chapter stood out for the wrong reasons, in which one of the Wapshot sons, Coverly, struggles with feelings of bisexuality. Itt felt completely tacked on – the subject is never broached before or after that one chapter, and it begins with a warning that readers might wish to skip to the next one. It felt to me like some editor told Cheever he couldn’t include gay content unless it was cordoned off with flares and pylons for the conservative reader of the 1960s, and that organization makes the subject easy to dismiss. He was much more successful in dealing with the same themes in Falconer.
Waugh and Cheever both mined humor from despair in their books, but where Waugh is biting and acerbic, Cheever is simply sad, watching the decline of Leander as he sees his own potency dissolved by his independent wife and his wealthy and slightly deranged sister while his sons are both held back by the crazy women they chase and marry. Wapshot is undeniably funny and poignant if you can work through the slow passages, but he clearly had better work ahead of him after this debut novel.