Home, Sweet Home ; A Penniless Aristocrat Is Forced into the Workforce to Save His Estate

By Charles, Ron | The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

Home, Sweet Home ; A Penniless Aristocrat Is Forced into the Workforce to Save His Estate


Charles, Ron, The Christian Science Monitor


The quickest way to thin out a shelf of great novels is to restrict yourself to the funny ones. Instead of alphabetizing the bounty that pours in every year, you'll be left casting about for a small vase to hold up the two or three contenders from each decade.

We've got plenty of good humorists in America, but looking for a really substantive comic novel could turn the National Book Award into one of those obscure mathematics prizes that grows dusty waiting for someone to find the last digit of pi.

Perhaps because they got an earlier start or the weather is so bad, the British Isles always seem to have produced more serious comic novelists than America (but we still have more Krispy Kremes). The latest writer to join that pantheon of wit is Irishman Paul Murray. His debut, "An Evening of Long Goodbyes," was a finalist for The Whitbread First Novel Award last year, but it lost to "Vernon God Little," DBC Pierre's rancid satire of the Columbine tragedy, which also won the Booker Prize in a depressing suspension of literary taste.

Murray follows the well-trod path of comic novels narrated by pompous windbags. (Which reminds me, to be fair, I should acknowledge the Pulitzer Prize awarded to "The Confederacy of Dunces" in 1981. But in that rare exception, the prize arrived long after the author had killed himself, which muffles the laughter somewhat.) Murray's narrator is Charles Hythloday, a penniless young aristocrat who seems to have wandered out of a Noel Coward play in his dressing gown. At 24, Charles has abandoned college and taken to the chaise longue to sip cocktails, watch old movies, and stand guard against anything modern that might threaten the eternal stability of his ancestral estate.

Between his incurable laziness and his infuriating superiority, there doesn't seem to be much to admire about Charles. He's a double- wrapped egotist, protected from the world by the walls of his mother's decrepit mansion and by his impenetrable sense of privilege. He's the kind of snob who accidentally knocks down the overworked cook while she's carrying his late-night snack and then generously tells her to go off to bed and get some rest - as soon as she's cleaned up the floor.

"To the casual observer it may have looked like I was living a life of indolence," he says. "It was not true, however, to say that I did nothing.... I saw myself as reviving a certain mode of life, a mode that had been almost lost: the contemplative life of the country gentleman, in harmony with his status and history. The idea was to do whatever one did with grace, to imbue one's every action with beauty, while at the same time making it look quite effortless."

We meet him at the moment that his convincing simulation of effortlessness is disturbed by a series of challenges:

First, the bank is about to repossess the house by collecting on mortgages that Charles didn't even know his late father had taken out. …

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