You can’t go home again—not after the old pile’s been converted into a showcase for dreadful lumpen drama (like Ramp, about the fight for handicapped access, and the upcoming The Rusting Tractor); not when the Bosnian cook’s extended family turns out to be living secretly on the grounds; and certainly not when the miles of bandages about your head cause people to upset their drinks. Dubliner Paul Murray’s laugh-laden debut, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, is thankfully more like four or five long evenings’ worth of companionable reading. Narrated by the Woosterish Charles Hythloday, the story expands from top-notch drawing-room farce to satirize IT recruitment and DJ culture, admit surprising gradations of sadness, and for good measure, provide a moving thumbnail bio of doomed beauty Gene Tierney.
Having wounded his noggin in a botched fake suicide (never mind), Charles is as mummified in appearance as he is cocooned in languid nostalgia. For him, the faintest notion of earning a living conjures up a shuddering scenario in which he has to work, for some reason, at a jar factory—the most grimly hilarious vision of manual labor since Charlie Bucket’s father screwed the caps on toothpaste tubes. When the time finally comes for Charles to start punching the clock, the temp agent ominously inquires if he speaks Latvian. Though his aristocratic worldview proves untenable, work is still a four-letter word in Evening. “It’s a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” as one character puts it, speaking not, as S. Dedalus did, of history, but of her gig as an antler-wearing barista. Someone else downshifts from aspiring to be the Irish Odets to “writing copy for the Snickers website.” Foreigners toil in a bread factory that’s like an “industrialized Hieronymous Bosch painting.” In a sharp bit of social vivisection reminiscent of Jonathan Coe’s masterpiece, The Winshaw Legacy, Dublin is a hair-raising mix of telecom-bubble riders and heroin addicts. But for all Murray’s finger-pointing, he’s generous in his affection, even for the beautiful but vapid young woman who asks, “Did you ever hear that thing, if you love somebody, set them free? It was in that ad for ice cream? With the talking bear?”