Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Hand Full of Dust - Evelyn Waugh

"I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust"

T.S. Eliot - The Wasteland

Reading this book was like watching a car wreck in slow motion, just when you think everything has hit rock bottom, the bottom drops out into an entirely new level of hell reserved for jaded cuckolds and their promiscuous counterparts.

Tony and Brenda Last have a modest estate in the country, a quiet repose that they share with their little boy John Andrew. Life is calm and predictable, until one day they have a guest, a Mr. John Beaver, and their life of solitude is forever changed.

Brenda is left to entertain Mr. Beaver, an uninteresting-non-entity of a man who still lives with his mother, has no income to speak of and is of little interest to anyone; whether it is the change of pace, or just having the taste of something different, Brenda, who is at first nonplussed, decides maybe there is something fascinating about this Mr. Beaver after all, and so begins a nose-dive into a midlife crisis.

Quickly she decides to take up economics as a pretext for staying in London, a flat is rented and she finds herself untethered from the chains of domesticity. Tony is left alone at the estate with their son, as Brenda's visits home become less and less frequent.  As a proper English gentlemen, Tony never doubts his wife's character and as her affair becomes more and more flagrant, he dutifully puts on his rose colored glasses.

Days turn into weeks, and while Brenda flits from one high society gathering to the next, with the vapid Mr. Beaver on her arm, life at the estate remains virtually unchanged, until their son, going out on his first fox hunt is kicked off his horse by an unruly mare and instantly killed. When Brenda hears the news her first response is "Thank God." The last bastion of domesticity has been surmounted and she is now free to pursue her quest of John Beaver's personality wholeheartedly. In her note to her husband, offering condolences for their loss, she simultaneously requests a divorce, saying she has been in love with Mr. Beaver and there is now no reason to pretend otherwise; although divorces can be unpleasant and unsightly, she promises for her part to end things as amicably as possible. Yet within a nano-second she is nonchalantly challenging Tony for an income he could never pay, as the victim of his fictitious infidelity.

Tony, compliant and gentlemanly as ever goes along with the plan. He hires a woman to go away with him to the sea side to build evidence of his alleged infidelities, but when Brenda's solicitors demand that he sell his estate to provide for his wife's income, he for once musters a bit of a spine and puts his foot down.  Quickly writing up a new will and setting his affairs in order he leaves for Brazil with a certain Dr. Messenger of somewhat reputable character.

Brenda, cut off from an income, becomes less and less of an interest for Mr. Beaver, if in fact she ever was; when his mother suggest they go to America, he quickly and without hesitation decides to join her, leaving Brenda alone, without income, family or society; she no longer has the means to afford the level of conspicuous consumption demanded.

As Tony's adventure begins well, slowly things begin to become dire. Stranded without guides, in search of an obscure city, with their rations quickly depleting; Tony becomes ill. Racked with fever, he is incapable of journeying on, and while the rations are quickly disappearing Dr. Messenger sets out to find help, only to disappear in the rapids.

Tony somehow manages to deliriously make his way through the jungle to a small village, where he is found and looked after by Mr. Todd, a kindly old man, who dabbles in herbal remedies. As Tony is nursed back to health, Mr. Todd's turpitude is quietly uncovered, and as he requests that Tony read a few chapters in Dickens, it is not long before Tony realizes he is a captive, destined to live out the rest of his days stranded somewhere in the middle of Brazil with Mr. Todd and Charles Dickens.

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