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Handful of Dust

The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown and Co.; $2.50)

This cold-blooded little novel made its first appearance five months ago in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, and almost immediately aroused clashing comment. Waugh himself has anticipated this reaction in a nervous prefatory note to the American edition, called “A Warning,” in which he says, in part; “This is a purely fanciful tale, a little nightmare produced by the unaccustomed high living of a brief visit to Hollywood…. this is a nightmare and in parts, perhaps, somewhat gruesome. The squeamish should return their copies to the library or the bookstore unread.”

I do not know of anyone who has returned his copy of the February issue of Horizon to the newsstand, read or unread, but it may well have happened, for The Loved One is very strong medicine.

I do know several people of rugged intellectual constitution who considered The Loved One affronting and outrageous, and seemed genuinely shocked and sickened by its preoccupation with cosmeticized cadavers, with the obscene mechanics involved in the temporary preservation of the lifeless human body, and the hypocrisy and relentless commercialization of the rituals of American burial, California style. All of them have the common knowledge of Hollywood and California and the undertaking business, and none of them, it seemed to me, got Waugh’s point.

At the risk of being called morbid or necrophiliac, I wish to say that, while I understand their horror and distaste, I do not agree that The Loved One is outrageous, unforgivable, or in any way a flower of evil. I think it is a good book, a very good book, and further proof of Evelyn Waugh’s unerring marksmanship, this time with a dum-dum bullet. I had long ago been shocked and revolted by the cause of Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant, ruthless reaction, and was not, like these friends of mine, affronted by its effect, a revulsion superbly articulated in satire. I have lived in California, and while there once attended a small, informal party at which, out of ten people, I was the only one who was not an undertaker or an undertaker’s wife. After the third highball they talked shop. I mention this only to explain why The Loved One did not make a wholly fresh impact upon me, and why its satire did not strike me as being at all times removed from reality.

Dennis Barlow is a young English poet who had been imported as a scriptwriter for Megalo Studios. When his contract is not picked up, he accepts with equanimity a position as attendant at the Happier Hunting Ground, a luxurious and maudlin mausoleum for pet animals. He is quite undisturbed by the fact that this morbid employment puts him beyond the pale at the British Cricket Club, and impervious to the disciplined pain it causes the professional Hollywood Englishmen who huddle there in an island of aristocracy. He is pleasantly disturbed, however, by the luscious, mindless Aimée Thanatogenos, an ex-beautician who has become a cosmeticist of cadavers at Whispering Glades, the last, unctuous word in Hollywood crematoria. Here the deceased are known as The Loved Ones, the sorrowing survivors as The Waiting Ones; here music exudes from soft-speakers hidden in lily bed and privet; here, for an appropriate sum, is The Works.

Dennis Barlow’s rival for the dexterous hand of Aimée is a Mr. Joyboy, a master-embalmer who courts her delicately by forwarding his cadavers to her for the final, cosmetic touches, with their features arranged in the tenderest of expressions. Dennis sends her, as his own, the best work of the best English poets. Mr. Joyboy offers to teach her his art. When Aimée, in a state of unbearable indecision between them, commits suicide in Mr. Joyboy’s atelier, Dennis, for a sum which will return him to England in style, agrees to avert scandal at Whispering Glades by accepting the body of Aimee, now truly a Loved One, at the Happier Hunting Ground, where she is popped into the crematory, discreetly listed as a pet sheep.

This is the story, minus its brilliant, mordant regalia. Evelyn Waugh his handled his repulsive, fractious material with unfaltering suavity, using dualisms in humorous contrast: the Megalo Studios and the Cricket Club; the pets and the Loved Ones; and the exquisitely repellent atmosphere of the Happier Hunting Grounds and Whispering Glades.

As a piece of writing it is nearly faultless; as satire it is an act of devastation, an angry, important, mod effort that does not fail. The Loved One is not outrageous but outraged; sickened but not sickening; its macabre humor is the shocked, protective laughter of the civilized man confronted with the unassimilable horror that permits no other means of rejection.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.