- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2011

MR. CHARTWELL
By Rebecca Hunt
Random House, $24 242 pages

Perhaps you remember the scene in the 1990 film “Ghost” in which Patrick Swayze’s character, a ghost, torments Whoopi Goldberg’s character, the only living person who can hear him, by singing “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” over and over and over again? If you do, you’ve got a pretty good idea of the feel of “Mr. Chartwell,” Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel, just arrived from across the pond on a wave of good reviews from English papers.

Mr. Chartwell, or Black Pat, as Ms. Hunt’s title character prefers to be called, is a large, smelly, ill-behaved black dog, visible and audible only to his “clients”: He is the embodiment of Winston Churchill’s lifelong foe and companion, his depression, which he called his bete noire or “black dog.” Mr. Chartwell’s job is to plague his clients using an array of tactics, including singing, destroying their personal property and chewing rocks.

To be sure, this magical realist conceit is provocative and whimsical: make darkness visible, embody depression. But Ms. Hunt gets drawn in and distracted by her novel conceit and mistakes him for an end in himself. If this were a children’s story, the character of Mr. Chartwell might well have been enough to carry the book, but adult taste demands that the unreal illuminate the real - that the fantastic Mr. Chartwell illuminate the very real black dog of depression.

Ms. Hunt’s novel, however, takes the idea of the black dog very literally: In several scenes, we see Churchill physically depressed - i.e. pushed down, crushed - by Black Pat, who likes to lie on top of the elderly statesman. Ms. Hunt asks us to believe that living with a big, bad, dirty dog (and doubtful guest and mediocre comedian and punster - Mr. Chartwell is also these things) is somehow expressive of the experience of being depressed in the spiritual sense.

In the world of Mr. Chartwell, living with depression is pretty funny - a series of scenes from Edward Gorey’s “The Doubtful Guest” or a “bad dog” movie (“Pinkerton, Behave!” “Beethoven,” “K-9,” “Turner and Hooch”):

Depression chews up the furniture. Depression takes a sloppy bath in the tub and shakes himself dry in the house. Depression throws a barbecue and grills a shoe. Depression sings “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in falsetto while you’re trying to write a farewell speech. Depression gobbles down cheese in a beastly way. Depression wants to chase a cat. Depression eats a copy of “Moby Dick.” Depression drinks a watering can of gin and tonic. Depression gets into your bed, sits on top of you and refuses to budge.

Depression is indeed distracting and exhausting, an immovable and heavy burden (in some cases, one that involves buckets of gin) but is the particular quality and nature of clinical depression’s arduous heft, its exhaustion and distraction, illuminated by being depicted as the antics of a badly behaved, poltergeisty dog?

And is low comedy the mode of depression? - because much of Mr. Chartwell’s narrative and tone are in the low comic vein: slapstick (dog walking on his hind legs, dog drinking tea, dog in the bath), a sort of romantic-comedy love/hate banter between Churchill and Chartwell, and, finally, Chartwell’s screwball taste for willful misunderstanding:

He repeats mangled versions of his clients’ words in a punning Who’s-on-first nonsense-speak (because, he says, “we need the laughs”): “O Lord, let us bray,” “Forgive me father for I have grinned,” “Riddle sticks,” “All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the cars” (instead of “stars,” as in Oscar Wilde’s version).

Once, one of Mr. Chartwell’s jokes is rather funny, but it’s plagiarized from Churchill. Chartwell accosts Churchill in the bath; the dog is drunk from his watering can of gin. Churchill screams, “You’re drunk!” Chartwell retorts, “And you’re naked, but in the morning, I will be sober.” Churchill, as in his famous exchange with Lady Astor, gets the last laugh: “Obnoxious guinea worm. In the morning, I will be clothed … but you will always be a bastard.”

This exchange has something of Lear in the wilderness with his fool and also of Beckett’s “I Can’t Go On, I Must Go On” - or, in Churchill’s own words, “Keep Buggering On.” Ms. Hunt captures the Churchillian idiom adeptly, interweaving the sentiments she imagines for the great man with his actual, historical utterances.

This is her strongest suit, and out of it comes the novel’s finest moment, a dramatic monologue in Chapter 36 that Churchill delivers to another of Mr. Chartwell’s clients, a young woman less adept at dealing with the black dog than Churchill is. Ms. Hunt’s imagined speech follows in the line of Churchill’s famous “Never give in” address at Harrow, but it’s about fighting the spiritual foe of depression as resolutely as an invading foreign enemy. (“If life hands you flies … make stock. And then fling it at your enemies.”)

With the exception of this monologue, however, the novel does not understand or engage with the nature of depression at all (crude caricatures aside) - and, given its title and its conceit, it meant to do so. The mythic, fabular figure of Black Pat - the bete noire, the very embodiment of depression - was meant to serve the end of giving a deeper understanding of the thing that he is - and he does not, except in caricature.

Depression is not a rude, cackhanded comedian who musses your clothes and your house. Ms. Hunt aspired for “Mr. Chartwell” to be a philosophical novel driven by magical realism, one that would scrutinize depression in the same way that “Candide” lays bare optimism. That she failed is perhaps not so surprising. It is a hard thing for a dog to walk on his hind legs, as Samuel Johnson once noted (“…you are surprised to find it done at all”) and is an even harder thing, it seems, for such a dog to carry a plot and the weight of the world.

Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewers Contest.

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