- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004


By Paul Murray

Random House, $24.95, 421 pages


In 1955, back in the days when Esquire magazine was blessed with her services as an annual fiction reviewer, Dorothy Parker observed that “the English write better than almost anyone else; the Irish better than anyone else.” Paul Murray’s debut novel, “An Evening of Long Goodbyes,” a satire of modern Ireland, suggests there is still something to the notion of the Irish nation surpassing all others in the quality of its English.

Although Mr. Murray is only in his twenties, no comic trick appears to be beyond his powers. Even bad ones — several of them in fact — improve by his rendering. If other satirists and farcists go too far slumming for adjectives in the marketplace of instantly resonant (and soon-to-be-forgotten) brand names, then so does Mr. Murray, though sparingly and thus to greater effect.

If pop culture becomes in so many books a cheap and easy way for an author to impress readers with his (not so) daring point of view, then here again Mr. Murray shows discrimination, holding out for an obscure, movie-star story to bring out, not the familiarity of a character, but the remoteness of his concerns from today’s checkout-aisle gossips.

If other authors bet all their efforts on landing a catchy narrative voice (Helen Fielding, check your e-mail), then Mr. Murray goes for a more complicated and marvelous concoction, a luxurious characterization that does not read like it came from a marketing department memo on where the zeitgeist is headed this financial quarter.

Mr. Murray’s man, Charles Hythloday, is a winning fool, a Quixotic hero-narrator with few peers in recent fiction. He is an aesthete who believes he’s an aristocrat. So it’s no wonder that in the novel’s one mention of Oscar Wilde, the great wit’s last name is left off, as if this book could hardly refer to any other Oscar.

Flip and foppish, Charles imagines himself a young lord of the manor and idles away the days on his late father’s estate while his mother finishes out a stay in a psychiatric home. His only company, aside from the family’s inscrutable maid Mrs. P., is his sister Bel, an aspiring actress who, her mother later says, takes herself too seriously for a great stage career.

Father Hythloday was no descendant of a great fortunate family, but a cosmetics artist, while Mother Hythloday helped make Amaurot, the family home, a fashionable address through her connections in showbiz. The worldview cultivated at Amaurot (which perhaps takes its name from the word “amaurosis,” a kind of blindness that runs in families) celebrated art’s ascendance above everything else. This philosophy leads to much quoting of W.B. Yeats, the sweet Yeats of nursery-like rhymes, that is, not the dark Yeats of “Easter, 1916” and “The Second Coming.”

Charles the sunny aesthete doesn’t really get Yeats’ world-ending, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” stuff, which is part of his charm. Even after he suffers through an explosion on the property, he doesn’t get it.

Unconscious because of a blow to the head, Charles dreams, in a brilliant interlude, of residing in Chile with Yeats, drinking gimlets and talking of life and poetry. He interrupts the great poet, who has begun reciting his latest work, to say, “This isn’t going to be one of your difficult ones, is it, one of those slouches-towards-Bethlehem-gong-tormented-sea-things that no one can understand?”

When he wakes up, Charles realizes his life of walking the estate in great coat and boots before a lunch of oysters and champagne has collided with the realities of modern Ireland and the family’s thin-air financing. The primary trick in Mr. Murray’s bag is to reveal much of this through Charles in advance of Charles realizing it himself. It is a trick with several variations throughout the novel, as Charles relates many a piece of information that obviously means something quite the opposite of what he believes it to mean.

The passing world of Charles Hythloday, though heavy on fantasy, deserves to be mourned. Today’s Ireland has grown close to Europe and becomes renowned for its young computer programmers instead of its queer old men.

Mr. Murray is no apologist for that more difficult world of old religion and ancient grudge. After all, Charles doesn’t understand the half of old Ireland, which largely explains his preference for it. Yet, though a fool he may be, Charles proves far more charming than his eager contemporaries, all of them buzzing to the new Euro tune of commerce and career.

Mr. Murray, too, is a product of some idealized past, a happy, jokester literature of fun and hilarity. More P.G. Wodehouse than Evelyn Waugh, “An Evening of Long Goodbyes” relies heavily on the preposterous scheme to save the day and hapless characters to give it a go. It is of course a gabby book, with elegant, comical put-downs and perfect one-liners, a novel for people who love words to sparkle and pop in unembarrassed virtuosity.

“An Evening of Long Goodbyes” is also a domestic comedy, in the largest sense that its animating force derives from the home and family relations. The Hythloday story is a strong brew of family myth, mysterious and unreliable parents, and untutored children who must work past the inertial madness of their upbringing.

As such it is a celebration of sibling love and friendship among family’s innocent victims. The Charles-Bel connection may be the most effective evocation of the sibling bond and its painful, intense, one-of-a-kind knowingness since Martin Amis’ “Success,” though Mr. Murray not surprisingly delivers the opposite of that novel’s pathological darkness.

Mr. Murray’s use of pop culture shows a sensible dollop of snobbery; indeed, Charles is something of a Niles Crane when it comes to tawdry movie fare like “Titanic” and junky furniture from Ikea. The book’s most extensive use of Hollywood fodder is found in Charles’ longstanding obsession with Gene Tierney, movie star of the ‘40s and ‘50s best known for her role as the titular murder victim in 1944’s “Laura.” Charles would like to make her the subject of a loving monograph.

While interesting in its own right and expressive of Charles’ esoteric preoccupation with beauty, the Tierney material works basically as an extended riff. Unfortunately, it fails to resonate with other themes of the book, except in a hazy, very general way.

The defining quality of this novel, however, is its happy, generous style. More than a foil for a changing world or a victim of a family crisis, Charles Hythloday is the head spokesman for a deliciously sweet approach to life that he sums up with a funny Italian word, “sprezzatura.”

“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. Thus, if one were to work at, say, law, one should raise it to the level of an art; if one were to laze, then one must laze beautifully.”

And if one is to write, one must write beautifully, which Mr. Murray does. But his achievement goes beyond stylistic virtuosity. In Charles, Mr. Murray has produced a complete narrative voice, with little throat-clearing and few borrowed notes, one that remains consistent and lovely through a sprawling and adventurous and very fun story.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at the Weekly Standard and the editor of Doublethink magazine.

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