As I've mentioned before, I've been reading Evelyn Waugh this year, and have already gotten through two of his shorter novels. I'm a latecomer but love his work. Last night, I finished The Loved One.
The Loved One, published in 1948, is the story of Dennis Barlow, a young English war veteran living in Los Angeles. After publishing one volume of poetry to great acclaim in Britain, he was recruited by Hollywood to help write a biopic of Shelley. That project having fallen through, he became a script doctor. When the novel begins, he has been totally out of work for months and has settled for a job he is surprised to find he enjoys—working at a mortuary for pets.
When a friend in the English expatriate community loses his writing contract after twenty-five years with the studio, he kills himself, and Dennis is the only one available to make funeral arrangements. He goes to the largest and most famous cemetery around, Whispering Glades, where "loved ones"—not corpses—are prepared for eternity in "slumber rooms" and "the waiting" have a wide variety of non-sectarian ministers and sanctuaries to choose from for preparation, commemoration, and burial.
At Whispering Glades, Dennis meets and falls for Aimée Thanatogenos, a young cosmetician who specializes in freshening the appearance of "loved ones" with makeup and haircuts. She works under the rock-star embalmer Mr. Joyboy, charismatic and beloved of everyone at Whispering Glades, who has been making his intentions toward her clear by passing his freshly embalmed "loved ones" on to her work station wearing enormous grins.
Think Barton Fink crossed with Bernie.
After Aimée criticizes the Happier Hunting Ground, the pet mortuary where Dennis works, he determines to woo her strictly through his poetry, never mentioning his job. Unfortunately, he has writer's block, and cribs from everyone from Keats to Poe in order to win her over. Aimée finds herself torn between the flashy and winsome Mr. Joyboy and the apparently unemployed but sweet British poet.
I can't summarize much more without giving things away, and the novel is less than 150 pages long, so I'll stop there. The situations that develop from these circumstances are hilarious, and finally intersect in first funny, then shocking ways.
Waugh's sense of humor is notoriously dark and cruel, and this novel has some of the blackest comedy I've ever read. It's also one of the funniest novels I've ever read. I laughed out loud throughout, even through some of its darkest and most shocking turns.
Beyond the dark humor, Waugh's sense of irony gives the whole book a cutting satirical edge. Most obvious are Waugh's digs at American manners. "They are a very decent, generous lot of people out here and they don't expect you to listen," one elderly Englishman remarks near the beginning. "Always remember that, dear boy. It's the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard."
More biting are Waugh's critiques of American beliefs and sentiments, particularly around the subject of death. Whispering Glades is a very obvious spoof of a real place—Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Waugh visited on an abortive trip to MGM to discuss filming rights for another book, and left more fascinated with the cemetery than anything else in the film capital of the world. The sentimentality, the tasteless displays, the rootless striving for legitimacy, the commodification of a sacred rite, the litany of unthinking euphemisms—many of which, like memorial park and loved one, we no longer even notice as euphemisms—all show a world in retreat from the realities of life and death. A world like Hollywood.
Waugh brings these themes out poignantly in several late incidents in the plot, but I don't want to give anything away. The Loved One is a rich and hilarious novel, and I highly recommend it.