The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Title: The Loved One
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Pub. Date: 1948
Summary: Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer, and Aimee Thanatogenos, crematorium cosmetician, find their romance complicated by the appearance of a young English poet.
Genre: Fiction, Satire, Dark Comedy
Rating: star-half-64

“Can I help you in any way?”
“I came to arrange about a funeral.”
“Is it for yourself?”

This is a year of firsts for me as far as literature goes. I’ve finally read a Goosebumps book, sat down with one of chick-lit’s heavy hitters, and now I have an Evelyn Waugh novel under my belt. There’s something a little – okay, a lot – intimidating about the classics. Although I read my share of them in school, classics are by and large considered to be rather daunting. I never fail to be amazed at how relatively short certain novels are once I do manage to pick one up and The Loved One is one of the shortest I’ve seen yet.

Clocking in at a bite-size 164 pages, The Loved One tells of Dennis Barlow, poet and pet mortician. At this point in time there are only a tiny handful of Englishmen in Hollywood and the Cricket Club has decided Dennis’ new position makes the rest of them look bad. When Sir Francis dies, they leave the funeral arrangements to Dennis (“to keep him busy” and take his mind off his newly deceased housemate).

Times without number since he first came to Hollywood he had heard the name of that great necropolis on the lips of others; he had read it in the local news-sheets when some more than usually illustrious body was given more than usually splendid honours or some new acquisition was made to its collected masterpieces of contemporary art. Of recent weeks his interest had been livelier and more technical for it was in humble emulation of its great neighbour that the Happier Hunting Ground was planned. The language he daily spoke in his new trade was a patois derived from that high pure source. More than once Mr. Schultz had exultantly exclaimed after one of his performances: “It was worthy of Whispering Glades.” As a missionary priest making his first pilgrimage to the Vatican, as a paramount chief of equatorial Africa mounting the Eiffel Tower, Dennis Barlow, poet and pets’ mortician, drove through the Golden Gates.

Whispering Glades is the funeral home Dennis wishes he had. The staff provides a ridiculous amount of options including wigs, outfits, and Zones where, for a fee, your Loved One (never referred to as the deceased) can rest eternally among statues of various poets, musicians, and other famous art pieces.

It is at Whispering Glades that Dennis not only receives a rather sizable amount of new ideas to pass along to his boss, but he first meets Aimee. Aimee Thanatogenos is one of the cosmeticians and is considered to be one of the best. She and the embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, are toeing a romance (he passes along Loved Ones to her with radiant smiles) that turns complicated once Dennis arrives.

“I think it’s a very, very wonderful thing to be a poet.”
“But you have a very poetic occupation here.”
He spoke lightly, teasing, but she answered with great gravity. “Yes, I know. I know I have really. Only sometimes at the end of a day when I’m tired I feel as if it was all rather ephemeral. I mean you and Sophie Dalmeyer Krump write a poem and it’s printed and maybe read of the radio and millions of people hear it and maybe they’ll still be reading it in hundreds of years’ time. While my work is burned sometimes within a few hours. At best it’s put in the mausoleum and even there it deteriorates, you know. I’ve seen painting there not ten years old that’s completely lost tonality.”

Not wanting to soil his reputation further, Dennis avoids telling Aimee about his job and woos her with poetry. Unfortunately for Aimee, she doesn’t realize the poems are actually written by famous poets from decades – and even centuries – ago, and consults a newspaper advice columnist for her next course of action. After numerous letters (resulting in much flip-flopping on her part and a disaster of a dinner with Mr. Joyboy’s mother), Aimee finally makes up her mind and the truth comes to light.

I’ve recently read a few reviews for The Loved One and each one praised its dark humor and witty commentary. Looking for a quick and entertaining read – not to mention an introduction to Waugh’s works – I hunted this one down at my library and devoured it in an hour or two. Whenever I love a book, it’s all I can do to force myself to stop rambling about it, but The Loved One is so short, that anything more I might say would give away the entire story.

Not all his customers were as open-handed and tractable as the Heinkels. Some boggled at a ten-dollar burial, others had their pets embalmed and then went East and forgot them; one after filling half the ice-box for over a week with a dead she-bear changed her mind and called in the taxidermist. These were the dark days, to be set against the ritualistic, almost orgiastic cremation of a non-sectarian chimpanzee and the burial of a canary over whose tiny grave a squad of Marine buglers had sounded Taps. It is forbidden by Californian law to scatter human remains from an aeroplane, but the sky is free to the animal world, and on one occasion it fell to Dennis to commit the ashes of a tabby-cat to the slip-stream over Sunset Boulevard.

The Loved One really is extremely funny, and I feel it’s a perfect starting point in Waugh’s catalog. From what I understand, his other works aren’t nearly as humorous, but if the writing is anything like it was with this book (quick, direct, and SO easy to read), I have a feeling Mr. Waugh and I will get along very well.

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