An Evening of Long Goodbyes

Before a week-long spring break this year I stocked up at the library on a variety of books (three of which went back unread). There just wasn’t enough time to get to them all before work and due dates took over.Paul Murray’s  An Evening of Long Goodbyes, with its quirky title and charming cover, was one of the lucky ones, though it was a random find while browsing the shelves.

Twenty-four-year-old Charles Hythloday is back at home in the family manor Amaurot (in Ireland) after an unsuccessful stint in college and his father’s death the year before. Under the care of the Bosnian housekeeper Mrs. P, since his mother is still in rehab for alcoholism, he lives a life of indolence and luxury, jolly lord rather than swinging playboy. He is content to spend his days drinking, watching old black-and-white films, and looking up girls in his younger sister Bel’s old yearbooks. Bel, meanwhile, has her heart set on the theater. Charles loves her dearly and protectively and believes she is wasting herself dating lower-class men like Frank, a junk man who goes to dog races and only drinks beer.

Unfortunately, Charles soon realizes that his neglect of trivial things likes bills and loans might have dire consequences; because much of his father’s finances were unclear, they might very well lose everything. Charles decides that he must maintain Amaurot at all costs, and comes up with a scheme to fake his own death. Nothing goes quite as he plans, however, and through a very long and circuitous chain of events that I shan’t spoil, he winds up rooming with Frank in a rough Dublin neighborhood. Frank supports him for a little while out of the goodness of his heart (and love for Bel), but eventually Charles must find a job, a task that he believes he is entirely unsuited for. He thinks that he is above the jobs available, when really he has no marketable skills whatsoever. It seems like everyone and everything, even fate itself, is conspiring against him.

This is a very difficult book to summarize, and the Amazon listing does a slightly better job, but the reality is that the book is a bit all over the place. The reviews are mixed, and so is my own reaction. [Update: three months later, I still can’t decide whether I would recommend this book.] This felt like it had all the ambition and scope of a first novel even before I read the author blurb on the jacket. It’s as if Paul Murray wasn’t sure he would have a second shot at writing a book, so he threw in everything but the kitchen sink. The result is often inconsistent in both tone and purpose over the 432 good-sized pages, especially in the second half.

At times I grew frustrated with how clueless Charles is. He is locked into his own problems and imaginary world, egocentrically oblivious to the ups and downs of those around him. He has that little-kid desire and trust that everything can be magically fixed. His father was a famous cosmetics developer, so he grew up amidst his parents’ lavish lifestyle and parties with make-up models. He honestly believes that he and his family can still have this to-the-manor-born lifestyle, even in modern-day Ireland, but is so out-of-touch with everyday life. Luckily Bel and their mother are more realistic. In a small, surprising way, Charles reminded me a bit of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, simply because his way of life is changing beyond his control. Can you have a coming-of-age novel about a twenty-four-year-old?

The book starts off with the air of a PG Wodehouse story, like something out of another decade. In retrospect this makes sense because that’s what Charles wants his life to be like.  Over the course of the novel it maintains some elements of farce in the death plots and theater companies, but gradually the reality of Frank’s way of life takes over.

The second half of the book is much grittier. Charles is surrounded by poverty, desperation, drug addicts, and the struggles of blue-collar workers.Some elements were even a bit shocking, not in a bodice-ripper euphemism way but in a crude literal way. Unfortunately I knew just enough slang to get some bad mental images of what Frank and his friends were discussing.

One of the subplots is Charles’ fascination with the Hollywood actress Gene Tierney. I knew nothing about her except that she stars in one of my favorite movies, Laura. In reality, her life was glamour on the surface and heartbreak beneath. The pressure that public figures are put under makes me so sad sometimes.

I love authors who can successfully intertwine lots of themes, like John Green or Charles Dickens, but the many elements Paul Murray introduces here are never quite given the chance to crystallize, other than the fish-out-of-water idea. For example, all of the following are present: Charles’ fixation with Gene Tierney, who may or may not be a parallelism with Bel, the honesty of Frank’s life versus the facade of Charles’, his father’s career with makeup as a mask, all of Bel’s inner demons, Charles’ obsession with his sister that almost borders on incestuous, political conflict in Eastern Europe, and the Irish economy. There are also small subplots with a racing job and Charles trying to write a thinly veiled autobiographical novel.

To be fair, some of my negative reaction may be because this was not necessarily the novel I wanted it to be. I was on a work-related trip with long stretches of nothing to do but read, and had been looking forward to a light-hearted romp. Instead I could only read for so long before needing to take a break. The ending is also ambiguous rather than a clear-cut happy resolution.

Though the book falls short of making it as either a comedy or a social commentary, at least to me, I will agree that Paul Murray has much promise as a writer. [Update: and I guess it’s a good thing that I’m still thinking about the book three months later! Charles is a very haunting character, though I don’t know that he was intended to be.]

Published in: on April 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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