A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

First read: 8/2000
Reviewed on: 8/7/2000
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

"Both tragic and hilariously funny"  Saturday Review
"A vicious, witty novel" New York Times

What makes professional book reviewers call a work of Literature "hilariously funny" or "witty"?  I'm thinking that most pieces of Literature are so dreadfully dull that when any such tome makes the reviewer crack a smile, he automatically thinks the author is some kind of Milton Berle.

This wasn't a funny book.  There were no funny scenes.   This was an excellent book, and it really was tragic.  Why can't that be enough?  I read this book during a 4 hour layover on my way to Waterloo from Los Angeles.  When I got home, I went on the Internet to find out what scenes in particular people found comical.  The Vicar's sermons were often mentioned.

The Vicar, a very minor character, wrote his sermons when he was preaching to English troops stationed overseas.  He never changed them.  So people in this town would hear sermons that always referred to their loved ones, thousand miles away.  The townspeople never really expected sermons to apply to their lives, so they didn't really mind.  Yes, I see the satire here.  And I did enjoy that part of the book.  But calling it "hilariously funny" or even "witty" is a bit of a stretch.  Robert Sheckley is hilariously funny.   Oscar Wilde is witty.  ("Very witty, Oscar, very very witty.")   I will grant you that this book is sardonic, but that is as far as I go.

Most of the book is in the genre of upper-class British idle society angst.  But it is a great example of that genre.  I really felt for Tony, and really disliked his wife.  Although I understood her.  I've been on both sides of infidelity, so it is hard for me to point fingers and condemn.  As a 20-21st century American, the specifics of things were interesting to me, too.  For example, I was amazed at what people had to do in order to obtain a divorce.

The novel was great all the way through, but it was the ending that made it, in my opinion, one of the Best Novels I've ever read.  I really cared about Tony by the time he took his trip to South America.  And then I thought the book would end one way, and then I thought it would end another way, and then I was afraid it was going to end this way, but it didn't and then it seemed like it would end that way, but in fact etc. etc. etc.  The pacing of this book is like waiting for an attraction at Disneyland.  Nowadays they have displays and things to make the wait entertaining, but the real amazing part is once you are on the ride.  That part doesn't last all that long, but it is the part you remember most.

I don't want to give away the ending, but... wow.  I couldn't stop thinking about it for two days.  It turns out that the ending was first published, alone, as an independent short story.  If you don't want to read this novel, I would say that you should go to your (local, independent) bookstore, crack A Handful of Dust open to Chapter Six (towards the very end, page 284 in my copy) and read that as a short story.  Maybe it loses something if you don't already care about Tony, but I don't think so.  Just remember that for the first 7/8 of the book, the book takes place in England, and is quiet.  I also read, on the Internet, that early American editions had a different ending, a mega-happy ending.  I can't believe that.

...actually, you should probably start from Chapter Five...   well... look:  Go ahead and read the whole thing.  Pip, pip, it is jolly good.  Smashing.

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