Hugo Whittier-failed poet and former kept man-is a wily misanthrope with a taste for whiskey, women, and his own cooking. Afflicted with a rare disease that will be fatal unless he quits smoking, Hugo retreats to his once aristocratic family's dilapidated mansion, determined to smoke himself to death without forfeiting any of his pleasures. To his chagrin, the world that he has forsaken is not quite finished with him. First, his sanctimonious older brother moves in, closely followed by his estranged wife, their alleged daughter, and his gay uncle. Infuriated at the violation of his sanctum, Hugo devises hilariously perverse ploys to send the intruders packing. Yet the unexpected consequences of his schemes keep forcing him to reconsider, however fleetingly, the more wholesome ingredients of love, and life itself.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Christensen's two previous novels (Jeremy Thrane; In the Drink) were delightfully believable, sympathetic contemporary narratives filled with wry humor and appealing protagonists. Here she ups the ante, with loftier literary aspirations and succeeds masterfully. As a young man, Hugo Whittier dreamed of being a published poet and essayist. Now 40, with a string of failures behind him, he sits self-exiled at Waverly, the family home on the Hudson River, dryly churning out autobiographical notebooks while smoking fast and furiously enough to ensure his rapid, inevitable demise (he is suffering from Buerger's disease, "almost certainly terminal in patients who keep smoking"). Christensen keeps the entire work moving briskly with delicious sardonic wit ("More and more, as I contemplate my death, it strikes me as vital in some way to hedge my bets. These fragments here... I leave in lieu of a life's work, a series of achievements") as well as infectious, detailed references to M.F.K. Fisher's food writing and essayist Michel de Montaigne, who is the novel's chief inspiration. Throughout, narcissistic, put-upon Hugo is pulled into the lives of others, mostly family members, who suddenly descend upon him and disrupt his otherwise placid, predictable existence: the wife he hasn't seen in 10 years who seeks reconciliation, the on-the-verge-of-divorce older brother, the violin-playing 10-year-old who may or may not be his daughter, his "Fag Uncle Tommy" and even a hit man originally hired to kill him during his wild young gigolo, drug-dealing days. All have gravitated to the family residence by the novel's end, providing him with substantial material for meditations on art, God, pedophilia, justifiable homicide and his obsession with sex, among other topics. It all works because Christensen has created in Hugo an altogether appealing, irascible antihero, along the lines of Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys or Doug Willis in David Gates's Preston Falls. This is an impressive tome, one that tickles the funny bone and feeds the mind.
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January 24, 2005
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Excerpt from The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen
October 9, 2001--All the lonely people indeed. Whoever they are, I've never been one of them. The lack of other people is a balm. It's the absence of strain and stress. I understand monks and hermits, anyone who takes a vow of silence or lives in a far-flung cave. And I thought--hoped, rather--that I would live this way for the rest of my life, whatever time is left to me.
This morning I woke up, lit a cigarette as always. I remembered that Dennis was downstairs, and then instinctively I reached for my pen and rooted around for this old blank notebook, and here I still am, writing about myself with the date at the top of the page like a lovelorn teenage diarist with budding breasts and a zit she can't get rid of. Words stay neatly in the head during times of solitude, they don't jump out through the pen to land splat on the page. Knowing that Dennis is lurking down there makes me jumpy. I have a nasty feeling he's not leaving anytime soon. His presence has diverted my life from its natural course.
Here I am, a decaying forty-year-old man in his decaying childhood home at the ruined finale of a wasted life. My hand is stiff. My faculties are moribund. Outside, below my tower window, the Hudson River sparkles and glints with untoward goodwill, blue, placid, and untroubled today, but sure to change its mood. There it lies, and has lain all my life, always changing, always there, in all its mercurial quiddity.
The lascivious pleasure I derive from phrases such as "mercurial quiddity" might possibly be all that prevents me now from flinging myself downstairs to beat my brother about the face and neck with my bare hands, shouting invectives and heartfelt pleas to go away. I wish more than anything that Dennis had stayed where he belonged, across the river with his wife Marie and their spawn, the bony cantankerous second-grader Evie and the bubbly sexy kindergartner Isabelle. Girls: this generation of Whittier sperm seems to produce only girls. It's the end of our name and our line, unless they turn out to be lesbians who adopt children with their "wives" and call them Whittier. God fucking forbid.
It took me I don't know how long to write the above, and then I stared into space smoking and ruminating for half an hour at least. A shooting pain in my foot brought me back. Pain has become my chronic and intermittent link to the world, among other things--I refuse to take painkillers. The inherited puritan hidden deep inside my core is the only part of me that's satisfied at the retribution--I did the crime, I'll do the time--maybe it's a Yankee diehard need to tough it out as long as I can. No parole, no halfway house. I'll eventually cave when it gets worse, in the months to come. Weeks to come.
Two nights ago, I was sitting on the large side veranda where I always sit, smoking and knocking back an occasional snort of whiskey and keeping my own counsel, when a car turned in at the driveway. I saw the headlights first and then the make: a Dodge Dart, which meant my brother. To the car was hitched a U-Haul trailer, which was clearly laden with belongings: the other prodigal son, returned to the roost.
He parked, turned off the engine, got out of the car, and stretched, one hand propping up the small of his back as if he'd driven hundreds of miles instead of just across the Hudson. Probably thinking himself unobserved, he let out a long, hard sigh.
"Well," I called. "If it isn't Dudley Doright."
His posture changed the instant he became aware that he was being watched: he stood erect, his long, handsome, abundantly haired head flung back. "Hugo!" he snapped manfully. "Hello!"
"I see you've brought gifts."
He came up to the porch and thumped me on the back in a sort of stilted hug. "Not gifts," he said. "My worldly possessions."
"She kicked you out?"
Something passed over his face, a weary premonition of the explaining he was going to have to do in the near future of his presumed marital failure, but he squelched it and said, "Marie has asked me to live elsewhere for a while, yes."
Again I saw the effort it took for him to say in that bluff and seemingly easy way, "The truth is, it's about time. This has been a long time coming. It's sort of a relief, I have to admit. Is that whiskey you're drinking?"
I offered him the bottle, which he eyed without touching. I'm sure he suspects that I only brush my teeth once or twice a year, which as a matter of fact is not the case.
"I'd better not just yet," he said.
"All righty then," I said. "Suit yourself." I tipped some more into my mouth.
"I'll carry some things inside first," he said. "Then I'll be very glad to join you in that drink. You're still in the tower room?"
"Still and forever."
"I'll take Grandma's old room then. At least it has its own bathroom. You have to go all the way through to the landing to get to the nearest one from the tower."
"I piss into a pitcher in cases of great urgency and dump it out on the lawn beneath my window," I remarked pleasantly, but he had already bounded down the steps. I watched my brother make several trips from U-Haul to house without offering to help him. Let him ask if he wanted help. "Mi casa es su casa," I said to the empty veranda. "No matter how much I may wish otherwise."
He bounded back out to the veranda from the foyer with a glass in his hand. He extended it and said, "All right, that's that. All squared away. I assume the bed linens in the closet upstairs are clean?"
"Still clean," I said, "from the last time anybody washed them twenty years ago."
"I opened the windows up there; the room needs a good airing." He took a healthy gulp of whiskey. "The whole place needs an overhaul. It's falling down. You've let it go to seed, Hugo. You haven't done a thing to keep it up in all these years."
"This is true, as a matter of fact. But the process began long before I came back. No one's made any improvements in . . . how long since Dad died? Almost thirty-five years."
"I think it's time someone did. And I seem to be the only one willing."
I shifted in my chair and said through something like rising panic, "Dennis, you can't seriously be going to live here again."
"Because you bought your house before you met Marie. It's your house. Let her move out. She ought to descend upon her elderly parents, brighten their dimming lives. Mellow their dotage. And make their hearts glad with the fluting cries of little children."
"First of all," Dennis said with a furrow in his brow, "the Dupins live in the city. Second, Marie has a private practice up here, she can't abandon her clients. Third, we agreed the girls would stay with her, and we don't want to uproot them. We'll figure it out eventually, but for now it makes the most sense for me to stay here."
"Sense to whom?" I muttered through the mouth of the bottle.
"Come again?" he said absently.
"Where will you do your . . . work? Don't you have a studio over there at your house? Won't you be a mollusk naked and quivering without a carapace here?"
"I'm taking a break for now. I just completed a new series and I'd like to clear my head before I start anything new. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think I should try to fix up this place. Someone's got to save it from complete ruin."
"It's our heritage."
"Why does that matter?"
"It's who we are."
"This house may be who you are, but it's not who I am. I'm no mollusk and this is no carapace. More like a maggot feeding off a dying corpse, that's me, here."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
And so forth. Our conversational style hasn't changed in decades.
I stopped writing once again after that last sentence and stared into space for . . . a lacuna, a miasma, a hiatus, an unwieldy string of vowels' worth of time. I haven't written anything in years, and every word I write now feels false and stilted as the gestures of long-unused muscles. But still . . . all of a sudden I have to write again . . . a physical compulsion or necessary ablution, like shitting or shaving, or both. Michel de Montaigne, my primary bedfellow these days along with cigarettes and pain, would know what I mean by this.
Dennis has been back at Waverley only a day and a half, but already I see my old, solitary life as something lost, through a fog of mournful nostalgia. In that old, lost, former life, I took my breakfast out to the side porch on warm mornings with coffee cup, cigarettes, lighter, and ashtray, and sat for hours, with a book or without, watching the river in a completely solitary silence that is the closest thing to happiness I've ever known. In the winters, I sat at the kitchen table with the stove roaring, without any snot-nosed pestering local dependents or demanding chatty hangers-on to watch me, interrupt my thoughts, demand my attention. Not many people can say that. This is a freedom I'm convinced everyone dreams of, secretly. Sonia, my God, that jolie-laide bucktoothed Polish flat-chested bitch, she had me for a while, but since she left, I've been impervious, unfettered, and able to live exactly as I pleased. Almost ten years, it's been. . . . My days were full and productive. I slept, woke, drank coffee or whiskey, smoked, read books, sat in my chair looking out over the Hudson River as the light changed slowly and the air darkened as evening came. In the evenings, I cooked myself elaborate feasts and fancies in the kitchen, one lamp burning, my sleeves rolled up. Steam rose from the stove, the radio played, wind howled outside. When the meal was ready, I ate alone at the table, radio still on. A book was often propped against my whiskey bottle, but most nights I didn't read, I concentrated on tasting the food I'd made. This required all of my attention. I absorbed the story of the flavors, tracking the relationships between ingredients, one bite following another with anticipation, as if I were in the grip of some intricate and suspenseful prandial plot, a gustatory novel on a plate.
My rare visitors over the years have been women lured here every now and again for sexual purposes. Jennifer, the last, was the forty-two-year-old auburn-haired plumpish admissions administrator at the nearby liberal-arts college. For a number of months, she and I enjoyed a casual ongoing affair, which proceeded nicely enough and might have gone nowhere forever as far as I was concerned, but came to an abrupt halt about a year ago, when she reunited with and then precipitously married an old boyfriend I'd never heard of.
Since then I've been reluctantly celibate, but am always on the lookout.
Meanwhile, through the years I have not encouraged and in fact have scarcely tolerated Dennis's occasional casual drop-ins, with or without his offspring but never with his wife Marie, who has never liked me. He came ostensibly to touch base with the semi-estranged brother but really to make sure I wasn't burning all the fainting couches to keep warm, or giving away any heirloom silverware, or otherwise squandering his inheritance and history. He has always been suspicious of my caretaking abilities, and with very good reason.
It's breakfast time. Under normal circumstances--which is to say, if I were alone here--I would stroll by the options in my mental automat: omelet with leftover chunks of lamb, a daub of sour cream, some chopped parsley; or a fried jumble of eggs, onions, potatoes, and sausage, puddles of ketchup; or maybe a sandwich of smoked herring fillets on toasted rye with horseradish and mustard; or a big chunk of extra-sharp cheddar, an apple cut into eighths, and a wad of sourdough bread ripped from a whole bakery loaf.
But Dennis is down there in the kitchen, all chipper and clean-shaven and wanting to talk to me. There's nothing I dread and resent more first thing in the morning than the double-headed monstrous hydra of obligatory pleasantries. It makes me want to bash his head in with a tire iron. As long as he's here, my life is ruined. Not to put too fine a point on it.
October 11--Good morning! I'm still alive, I see.
If I can hold on through the night, the morning is always better.
Here I am again, Dennis downstairs as usual in the kitchen with his wet-haired, soap-smelling self wedged in a chair, itching for a little male bonding with the kid brother--Jesus, it's unbearable, but this is his house too.
Montaigne carved on the roof beams of his own hermit tower the following admirable thoughts:
The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge.
I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine.
Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills a hollow head.
Not more this than that--why this and not that? Have you
seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool.
Man, a vase of clay.
I am human, let nothing human be foreign to me.
What inanity is everything!
What inanity indeed. If I don't have a cup of coffee soon, my head will implode.
I'm smoking, as always, a long slow suicide that in recent years has got a fuck of a lot faster. Smoke, smoke. In draw, out blow, rush of nicotine. The first one of the day is the only one that matters to me, all the other ones are just habit. I wake up jonesing, shaken from the long night of pain. And the match, the dry sulfur hiss of promise, of comfort. And the first deep lungful of gray foul-fresh smoke. And then the finest moment of each day, the zing. I can never get it back all day long, no matter how much or little I smoke, no matter how carefully I space out the cigarettes, and I think I've tried everything, every trick of timing and dosage. Short of upgrading to heroin or crack, there's nothing left to do, it's just what it is now. And heroin or crack would eventually turn into the same drill.
Pain kept me awake all night; I'm saggy-faced and wrung out. Nerves, the electrical wiring of the body. Wish I could short-circuit myself. I seem to have suddenly entered a temporal waiting room I won't get out of until I'm alone again. Last night I read some of Montaigne's Essais, in French. My French isn't nearly good enough for this, so it helped me fall back to sleep, finally.