Imagine Bertie Wooster getting a real job in, perhaps, the assembly line at a bread factory and you'll have some idea of the incongruousness of Charles Hythloday, redoubtable hero of Irish author Paul Murray's excellent debut novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes. Though Murray's story has elements of melancholy that the endearingly obtuse P.G. Wodehouse character never had to contend with, both writers traffic in the kind of humor that comes from the inherent absurdity of the European aristocracy clinging to its outdated ways in the modern world.

As his mansion outside Dublin crumbles and his family disintegrates, Charles, whose occupation up to now has been an effort to revive the tradition of the thinking gentleman of leisure, realizes something drastic has to be done. Since Father died and Mother's been institutionalized, months of house-maintenance bills have gone unpaid; the mortgage is hopelessly behind and the records about it are incomprehensible. In short, Charles and his sister, Bel, are about to lose the family home. So, with the help of a shady postman/private detective, Charles decides to fake his own death and run off to Chile. This being a comic novel, naturally, his plan goes awry. Instead of sipping Chilean wine on the beach, Charles winds up booted from his home and living in the scuzzy hovel of his sister's ex-beau, Frank.

Murray's simultaneous skewering of both the upper and lower classes is brilliant, but the novel is much more than a farce. It hinges on the complex relationship between Charles and his sister, Bel, a troubled would-be actress and the source of the aforementioned melancholy. It's one thing to write an outrageously funny book; it's another to infuse that book with tenderness and real emotional depth. Luckily for us, Murray has done both.

Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.

 

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