The complete stillness was more startling than any violent action. The body looked altogether smaller than life-size now that it was, as it were, stripped of the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence. And the face which inclined its blind eyes towards him – the face was entirely horrible; as ageless as a tortoise and as inhuman; a painted and smirking obscene travesty by comparison with which the devil-mask Dennis had found in the noose was a festive adornment, a thing an uncle might don at a Christmas party.

Evelyn Waugh is a writer I can return to again and again. I think Vile Bodies was the first of his books that I read as a teenager, which was something of a revelation. It was the louche pessimism of his writing that impressed me, equal parts self-aware and flavoured with schadenfreude, combined with a rapier-like wit. It would seem the man himself was a thoroughly unpleasant character – if you are interested in reading about Waugh’s life I would recommend Selina Hastings’ biography – but I always find myself putting down a book of his with a big grin on my face. The copy of The Loved One that I read was a gift from a friend back in Dublin to mark our leaving for Australia. Sadly this edition, published in 1956 and having survived all the years in-between did not last one day with me. The cover was torn off. I feel terrible about that.

Dennis Barlow is a failed English poet who has been unsuccessful in breaking into the Hollywood film industry. Fortunately he has managed to befriend Sir Francis Hinsley, chief script-writer for Megalopolitan Pictures and a fellow Englishman. Barlow has even managed to take up residence in the “only knight in Hollywood’s” home, despite the objections of the expatriate community represented by Ambrose Abercrombie. The general feeling is that Barlow in not making a decent stab at success in America is letting the side down quite a bit and making them all look a bit foolish. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he is something of a parasite, having latched himself on to Hinsley. Barlow’s solution is to find work at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery. If anything this adds insult to injury, but worse is to come. One day Megalopolitan Pictures summarily dismiss Hinsley after twenty-five years service. Distraught the respected man of letters does the only honourable thing and takes his own life.

Abercrombie leaves it to Barlow to make the funeral arrangements, which leads him from his less classy workplace smelling of burnt dog hair to the far more up-market Whispering Glades. Offering a number of religious and non-religious services, the funeral home works according to a number of obscure philosophies designed by its founder Wilbur Kenworthy, the self-described ‘Dreamer’. The dead are referred to exclusively as ‘Loved Ones’, who are greeted after death by the eternally happy ‘Waiting Ones’. Whispering Glades, therefore, are in the business of making the corpses under their care as life-like as possible, so that they will be well-received in this ‘whites only’, paradise. The necropolis itself is divided up into a series of themed graveyards, notable for the ostentatious level of detail.

Barlow becomes professionally envious, as he feels his position at The Happier Hunting Ground is tantamount to being ‘lower class’, somehow. He spots an opportunity to attach himself to a beautician at Whispering Glades, the wonderfully named Aimée Thanatogenos. Passing off examples of classical poems as his own work, he begins to woo her, much to the dismay of his rival for her affections, Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy. Barlow’s only worry is that before she agrees to marry him, allowing his stay in Los Angeles to continue, he might run out of poems to plagiarise.

This is a wickedly funny book about English class versus American largesse. Waugh’s descriptions of Whistpering Glades are inspired, in particular an island dedicated to W.B. Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, although they got rid of the bees, so that there would be “no sore fannies and plenty of poetry.” Whereas Abercrombie presents a mask of cheerful bonhomie in the face of America’s overtaking of Britain, Barlow sees his situation in entirely cynical terms. Who has money? How can he get some? Readily exploiting the people in his life, he has decided that if cannot write poetry, he will instead live comfortably.

Deliciously wicked and absurd, I loved this book.

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