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Idiots and savants,
This review is from: Vile Bodies (Paperback)
The great thing about Evelyn Waugh is that the humor of his novels transcends their era. You don't have to know anything about English society of the 1920s to be entertained by "Vile Bodies" because Waugh's style relies on fundamentally silly characters, wry dialogue, piercing intelligence, and manic energy more than on contemporary culture, events, and figures. What makes his humor unique is that he can be irreverent without being tasteless, which seems an amazing concept since modern comedy has made the terms "irreverent" and "tasteless" practically synonymous. Few novels can elicit from me at least one paroxysm of audible laughter, but "Vile Bodies" succeeds in this feat, as does most of Waugh's work.
"Vile Bodies," one his earlier novels, is prototypical of his career, featuring a protagonist who is beleaguered by misfortunes but manages to rise to certain challenges. Adam Fenwyck-Symes is a young author who would like to marry his girlfriend Nina Blount but doesn't have enough money to support her, and he has to write twelve books before he can get a decent advance from his publisher. For the time being, he rents a room at a boarding house run by a woman named Lottie Crump and inhabited by a disparate group of idiots including the deposed king of Ruritania.
Adam petitions Nina's father, a retired colonel who is either senile or eccentric or both, a wealthy man who's too cheap to buy a car or pay for bus fare but enthusiastic enough about the cinema to blow all his money on the production of a film about Methodism founder John Wesley, for some financial aid, but the old man's strings can't be pulled so easily. A ray of hope is offered in the form of the suicide of a local rag gossip columnist named Simon Balcairn who assumes the nom de plume of Mr. Chatterbox. Adam fills in for the deceased hack, documenting the antics of the partying crowd, nonchalantly embellishing and inventing items to make the proceedings more interesting to his readers and himself.
Waugh is brilliant in the way he constructs an episodic novel within the context of an overarching plot, each of his characters usually having one distinct idiosyncrasy that contributes something significant to the story. One episode consists of a drunken Major who bets Adam's money on a sure horse but never makes it clear whether Adam will ever get his money back. Another memorable scene is an automobile race attended by Adam and a few of his friends, including Agatha Runcible, a young lady who nearly immolates herself by carelessness with her discarded cigarettes. And perhaps the most salient extraneous character is Mrs. Melrose Ape, an American evangelist who travels with a chorus of winged "angels," each named after a Virtue. (Chastity's persistent misconduct with strange men is troublesome to the troupe.) Virtue or not, Discontent could never be as Divine as one of Waugh's novels.