Home, Sweet Home

A penniless aristocrat is forced into the workforce to save his estate

The quickest way to thin out a shelf of great novels is to restrict yourself to the funny ones. Instead of alphabetizing the bounty that pours in every year, you'll be left casting about for a small vase to hold up the two or three contenders from each decade.

We've got plenty of good humorists in America, but looking for a really substantive comic novel could turn the National Book Award into one of those obscure mathematics prizes that grows dusty waiting for someone to find the last digit of pi.

Perhaps because they got an earlier start or the weather is so bad, the British Isles always seem to have produced more serious comic novelists than America (but we still have more Krispy Kremes). The latest writer to join that pantheon of wit is Irishman Paul Murray. His debut, "An Evening of Long Goodbyes," was a finalist for The Whitbread First Novel Award last year, but it lost to "Vernon God Little," DBC Pierre's rancid satire of the Columbine tragedy, which also won the Booker Prize in a depressing suspension of literary taste.

Murray follows the well-trod path of comic novels narrated by pompous windbags. (Which reminds me, to be fair, I should acknowledge the Pulitzer Prize awarded to "The Confederacy of Dunces" in 1981. But in that rare exception, the prize arrived long after the author had killed himself, which muffles the laughter somewhat.) Murray's narrator is Charles Hythloday, a penniless young aristocrat who seems to have wandered out of a Noel Coward play in his dressing gown. At 24, Charles has abandoned college and taken to the chaise longue to sip cocktails, watch old movies, and stand guard against anything modern that might threaten the eternal stability of his ancestral estate.

Between his incurable laziness and his infuriating superiority, there doesn't seem to be much to admire about Charles. He's a double-wrapped egotist, protected from the world by the walls of his mother's decrepit mansion and by his impenetrable sense of privilege. He's the kind of snob who accidentally knocks down the overworked cook while she's carrying his late-night snack and then generously tells her to go off to bed and get some rest - as soon as she's cleaned up the floor.

"To the casual observer it may have looked like I was living a life of indolence," he says. "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."

We meet him at the moment that his convincing simulation of effortlessness is disturbed by a series of challenges:

First, the bank is about to repossess the house by collecting on mortgages that Charles didn't even know his late father had taken out. For months, he's been stuffing collection notices into a spare drawer.

Second, his theatrical sister, who hates the house and is determined to escape it, has brought home the latest and lowest in a line of lovers whom Charles loathes. (His objections to her previous boyfriends sound suspicious: One wore socks with sandals, another was "so Scottish.")

And finally, his glacial mother returns from rehab filled with the fervor of tough-love and self-help lingo, determined that Charles should get a job. "A job!" he thinks, stunned by the audacity of that suggestion. "This was the thanks I got for trying to save a few shreds of family dignity." But his mother is immovable on this point, and Charles storms out of the house, sans allowance.

As wittily as Murray satirizes his bombastic hero in a crumbling castle, some of the best scenes in this novel focus on the equally inane working world that Charles plunges into, hoping perhaps to find something paying six-figures in that information-technology revolution he's heard rumors about.

Clueless as Charles is, his acidic sarcasm provides a delicious commentary on the vacuous cant of employee motivation efforts, the venal world of temp agencies, the slave conditions of immigrant workers. His awful experiences in a "yule log" factory are enough to convince us that he may be right: There is something dreadful about modern culture, so consumed with getting and spending.

There's plenty of zany slapstick mixed in here, too: explosions, dueling, opening-night disasters, dinner-party brawls, a drunken postman hiding in the bushes. For reasons I won't ruin for you, Charles spends most of the novel with his head entirely bound in gauze like some dashing version of "The Mummy Takes Manhattan." But the serious currents of Murray's novel come in like the tide, so gradually that we hardly notice until it's too late and the laughter catches in our throats. Deep down, Charles loves his sister very profoundly, very tenderly, and what he's really trying to preserve - the delight of their childhood - seems all the more beautiful and tragic once he understands that it's irreparably shattered.

"Long Goodbyes" is probably too long by 100 pages, as though Murray thought he'd only have this one chance to get everything in. But he needn't have worried. As a searing critic of contemporary life, a searching observer of sibling relations, and particularly a comic writer, he's at the beginning of a long, witty career. Tuck this one in your robe to pursue some valuable leisure of your own.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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