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Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
While not necessarily his best book, when I first read it, I found this to be his funniest. If, like me, you find many American excesses funny, when they are not tragic, then you cannot fail to enjoy this book. It is set in what Waugh calls one of the barbarous regions. In this case that region is California which, in Waugh’s eyes (and not his alone) is just as barbarous as any of the African countries mentioned in his other works. It combines the excesses of Hollywood and the death industry in a brilliant manner, even though you may well argue that LA has done that to itself, without needing any help from E. Waugh.
Dennis Barlow works for the Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery that is completely over the top. Death is sanitised, sterilised and travestied. Dennis is an expat Brit who had come to Hollywood to write a screenplay for a biography of Shelley. Because he has had to resort to the Happier Hunting Ground to earn his living, his screenplay not having succeeded, he is looked down upon the fiercely clannish and cricket-loving British community who want nothing more than to get him out. He does have one mentor among the Brits, Sir Francis Hinsley. Unfortunately Hinsley is driven to suicide by the cruel moguls at Megalopolitan Studios. Dennis goes to the Whispering Glades Memorial Park (clearly based on Forest Lawn) to arrange for Sir Francis’ funeral, where he meets Aimée, a cosmetician, whom he woos by quoting well-known English poetry as his own. After various plot complications, involving parrots, gurus and strange Californians, Aimée kills herself and Dennis disposes of her body in the pet crematorium and then returns to England at the Cricket Club’s expense.
Waugh clearly considered Californians as completely weird, a view, of course, shared by many others. He mercilessly mocks them. It is not just the death industry and the ruthless Hollywood types that are victims of his satire but the gurus, painted ladies, sleazy journalists and of course, the English expat community. Barlow is in Waugh’s innocent Englishman abroad category – Paul Pennyfeather and William Boot are two other obvious examples but Waugh, as he does with the other two, can’t help making him somewhat foolish. Read the book and you will never look at death the same way again.
First published 1948 by Chapman & Hall