Some of us who read A Handful of Dust never get over it. The Waugh-heads in college were all Brideshead Revisited junkies, but for me it comes down to Dust, and I’m always surprised by its cutting clarity, the method (mostly dialogue) Waugh employs to showcase the coming apart of a union, and how sad and funny it is, all of it. A Handful of Dust is a novel that is self-contained and full of itself, and like the best novels of that persuasion full too of the world.
Hapless John Beaver is introduced, a young negligible idler who frequents Brat’s Club and his bedroom in his mother’s house. He has 300 a year and no ambition, and is invisible to most his peers. He arrives somewhat unannounced at the Lasts’ estate for a weekend holiday.
Brenda and Tony Last don’t know what to do with Beaver so they run him down, until ever so subtly Brenda succumbs to Beaver’s city charm. She’s been in the country too long, misses her set and friends and the buzz of bright lights. She turns from Tony toward Beaver and falls hard.
Tony is unaware of Brenda’s affair, the only one ignorant. Waugh uses dialogue of the Lasts’ peers to illustrate the frivolity and excitement of the Last situation; these peers live for gossip.
The Lasts’ son John Andrew dies in a riding accident, and Brenda has one of the strangest reactions to tragedy in literature. It’s a heartbreaking scene, because a reader up to this point in the novel hasn’t come down on either side of the marriage. Afterwards, one is firmly pro-Tony, and Brenda Last joins Fran Dodsworth as one of the great bitches in all of literature.
Brenda wants a divorce, and Tony agrees to participate. Divorce meant for cause then in England, so Tony takes a tart on holiday to Brighton, in order that he be found out by hired detectives. It’s a great farce Waugh showcases, sad and noble. But Tony changes his mind soon about giving up his estate and giving over cash to Brenda, and he takes leave of England. He stands up for himself rather selflessly, if such a move is possible–of course Brenda sees it as beastly behavior–and he undertakes a frivolous and dangerous last-minute adventure to the Brazilian jungle.
Tony’s jungle adventure makes up the last third of the novel and it is the best section, full of Waugh’s vivid language and prejudices. Stranded and feverish, Tony’s hallucinations read true and frightening; it is an ending of bad circumstance and fear, and features one of the great evil characters in literature, Mr. Todd.
What strikes me most about Waugh is that his people and scenarios usually arrive at truth despite at first being unaware of needing truth. Not many in Waugh are happy though they certainly don’t encounter honest problems. There’s something of Wodehouse in Waugh, but Waugh has deeper feeling on two counts; he writes women better, and he is proficient in conflict, with dueling ideals. His chapters are usually chapters in characters’ lives; they end succinct but not neat.
A Handful of Dust is a perfect novel, and risky, and everything works except the brutally flawed characters, who like real people don’t work well at all.