If there is a downside to writing a Booker shortlisted, critically acclaimed, best-selling, universally loved book like Skippy Dies, it may be that readers come to your first, lesser known novel and find themselves disappointed in it by comparison. This seems to be the online consensus and if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to like Paul Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes as much as Skippy Dies.
I certainly wasn’t prepared to like it more, but I did.
This is a big, funny, warm-hearted hug of a book. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It drove my husband to distraction as I followed him round the house quoting lines I found hilarious. It has an unforgettable narrator who is a rich, smug, self-centred, lazy snob but who I would give anything to go drinking with. It has a plot that is a thing of madness featuring faked deaths, dodgy private detectives, socialist builders, amateur theatre, greyhound racing, heroin addicts, refugees hiding in a Folly and a comatose sojourn to Cuba with WB Yeats. It has endlessly quotable lines, unforgettable characters and an ending that is sweet, sad and perfect. It’s absurd and unrealistic and I love it for that.
Have I sold you yet??
Charles Hythloday is a 24 year old university drop out who lives in Amaurot, his family mansion by the sea outside Dublin. His distaste for the outside world of shopping centres, mobile phones and the Celtic Tiger mean he spends his days watching old black and white Gene Tierney movies, worrying about his beloved actress sister Bel’s unsuitable boyfriends, and depleting his deceased father’s wine collection. When we first meet Charles, he tells us,
I’d been out the night before with Pongo McGurks and possibly over done it a little, insofar as I’d woken up on the billiard table with a splitting headache and wearing someone else’s sarong
He sees himself as living by the Renaissance code of ‘sprezzatura’, which dictates that everything you do, or in Charles’ case, don’t do should be carried out with effortless grace and a focus on beauty and not results.
To the casual observer it may have looked like I was living a life of indolence. It was not true, however, to say that I did nothing…. I saw myself as reviving a certain mode of life, a mode that had been almost lost: the contemplative life of the country gentleman, in harmony with his status and history. 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.
Unfortunately for Charles there are a few obstacles in the way of his life of luxury. Firstly the bank want to repossess the house as the labyrinthine finances of their father’s estate are murky to say the least. Then there is Bel’s new boyfriend Frank, a man with a van and totally unsuitable in Charles eyes. Finally, his mother, who, like an upper class Lucille Bluth has returned from rehab, still drinking (‘they are very progressive about that at the Cedars’) but determined that her layabout son move out and get a job while she turns Amaurot into a commercial Centre for the Arts to save the family fortunes through grants and sponsorship.
Charles is a narrator with no sense of self-awareness, in the manner of Bertie Wooster or Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces and while he can be a sharp eyed commentator on the outside world, he is less reliable about his own situation and emotions. This narrative voice works wonderfully well both in terms of sheer comedy value and in allowing us, the reader, to stay one step ahead of Charles as he misses clues and important events through his complete inability to see things from anyone else’s point of view. His relationship with his sister Bel is also complicated by the fact that he is clearly in love with her, their cloistered childhood of distant parents and shared secrets fostering an unhealthy obsession in Charles with her parade of unsuitable partners. Making Charles the narrative voice is a clever touch by Murray, we may have nothing in common with him, but we come to realise that we have the same fears and flaws. Like Charles, we come to realise that we are all human.
He also gives us a different point of view on the world of the Celtic Tiger. The cut and thrust of modern life is something to be resisted and there are some very funny scenes when Charles ventures out to a recruitment agency looking for work to find his knowledge of black and white movies and one year of a Theology degree to be sadly lacking in this brave new world. For Charles, the boom is ‘not exactly Scott Fitzgerald’ and his friend Hoyland sums the whole thing up quite succinctly,
‘I’ll tell you what it’s like’, he said glumly. ‘It’s like being in Caligula’s Rome, and everyone around you is having an orgy, and you’re the mug stuck looking after the horse’. He pulled heavily on his cigarette. ‘The whole thing’ll come crashing down,’ he said bleakly, ‘and all anyone’ll have done is eaten a lot of expensive cheese.’
Don’t get me wrong, An Evening of Long Goodbyes is by no means perfect. It’s a little too long and the middle section where Charles moves in with Frank in Bonetown and gets a job at the Cherry Orchard bread factory don’t have quite the sparkle of the rest of the book. Murray has a weakness for literary allusion – Chekov, Yeats, Wilde, and Shakespeare – there’re all here and the references are sometimes laboured. But I will forgive him all of this because of the joy of the writing. Murray writes with such confidence and bravado that it is impossible not to be swept along with wondrously named characters like Bunty Chopin, Fluffy Elgin, Boyd Snooks and Patsy Olé.
Photograph of Paul Murray by Cormac Scully
His prose is laugh out loud funny. A city centre pub is ‘the sort of place Egon Ronay must have nightmares about’, a dodgy character has ‘all the restraint of a Thessalonica street walker’ and a dying father’s last words to his son are ‘Always…..moisturize’
Take this description of Frank, Bel’s latest love interest:
He was very large and, in some unplaceable way, lumpy. His head, however, was what really fascinated me. It resembled some novice potter’s first attempt at a soup tureen, bulbous and pasty, with one beetling eyebrow, a stubbly jaw and less that the full complement of teeth. To describe his ears as asymmetrical would be to do asymmetry a disservice
When it is time to get serious though, Murray has a light touch. Before we know it, laughter turns to tears as the reality of the life Charles is struggling to hold on to appears much darker than he has allowed himself to remember. His love for Bel and his attempts to keep them suspended in time at Amaurot are all the more poignant when we realise that their childhood was irreparably damaged. Charles’ keen ability to lie to himself means he has also been lying to us and we realise we have been looking at two damaged adults, trying to make sense of an unusual and often painful childhood as best they can. It takes Frank to point out to Charles that
To live in the present….we must first atone for our past and be finished with it…
In the end, thanks to Frank, a greyhound literally on its last legs and a (potentially) faked death, this is what Charles learns to do. He discovers that riches in life come from the people in it and he manages to continue to live in the present without apologising for who he is.
So, curl up on your chaise long, in your (or anyone else’s for that matter) best sarong, pour a fine glass of burgundy and enjoy An Evening of Long Goodbyes at your leisure. It’s worth it.
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From posh Irish to posh Americans, next up is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth