Evelyn Waugh’s characters do not behave as we think we would in moments of crisis. His satirical brush paints them as empty shells with skewed values. That’s what makes A Handful of Dust such an astonishing and fascinating novel.
Tony and Brenda Last reside in a large house at Hetton, a rural village where the post-World War I British fritter their lives away in fox hunts and train trips to London. It’s all a façade, for the mansion’s rooms, named after characters from Arthurian legend, are uncomfortable, and Tony spends so much money on servants and laborers that he can barely make ends meet. The couple’s only son, six-year-old John Andrew, suffers from lack of attention, for his parents are self-centered and preoccupied with vain pursuits.
Brenda and her lady friends try to justify her romance with a worthless idler by attempting to seduce Tony with an ex-princess. Tony prefers bar-hopping with a friend, a night during which he repeatedly phones Brenda for permission to visit her at her London flat. It is one of several amusing and telling scenes that reveal the boundaries of their relationship.
The most shocking moment comes with Tony and Brenda’s cold-hearted reactions to a family tragedy. An unsympathetic American woman engages Tony in hours of card games while Brenda uses the disaster as an excuse to divorce him in favor of a romance with a debt-ridden idler. Tony’s jungle expedition following the incident serves as a metaphor for the aimlessness of this decadent generation.
As I mentioned earlier, this book is a satire, filled with hilarious moments that only a master like Evelyn Waugh could conceive. I especially enjoyed Tony’s clumsy attempt to portray himself as a philanderer, and his feverish jungle hallucinations. A Handful of Dust is a classic, free of the explicit sex and offensive language permeating modern novels. I am happy to recommend it.