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A Handful Of Humor Can Make A Book

A Handful of Dust is a strange book.

It’s strange in a good way. Evelyn Waugh is excellent with dark humor—and it’s a recurring technique he uses throughout the novel.

The following is probably my favorite passage in the novel. I think it illustrates Waugh’s style of visual, humorous writing.

To give you context, after some difficult life-changing events, a rich British guy named Tony heads out to the Brazilian jungle with his friend, Dr. Messinger. Just to do rich guy stuff and look for reclusive tribes.

While there, the two men attempt to barter with a group of Indians–giving them goods in return for the Indians guiding them to the reclusive tribe they are searching for. When the Indians play hard ball with the two British men, Dr. Messinger resorts to his last trick.

“It’s no good,” said Dr. Messinger after half an hour’s fruitless negotiation. “We shall have to try with the mice. I wanted to keep them till we reached the Pie-wies. It’s a pity. But they’ll fall for the mice, you see. I know the Indian mind.”

These mice were comparatively expensive articles; they had cost three and sixpence each, and Tony remembered vividly the embarrassment with which he had witnessed their demonstration on the floor of the toy department….

Dr. Messinger put the toy down at his feet and set it going; tinkling merrily it ran towards the group of Indians. For a moment, Tony was afraid that it would turn over, or become stuck against a root but the mechanism was unimpaired and by good chance there was a clear course. The effect exceeded anything that he had expected. There was a loud intake of breath, a series of horrified, small grunts, a high wail of terror from the women, and a sudden stampede; a faint patter of bare brown feet among the fallen leaves, bare limbs, quiet as bats, pushed through the undergrowth, ragged cotton gowns caught and tore in the thorn bushes. Before the toy had run down, before it had jingled its way to the place where the nearest Indian had been squatting, the camp was empty.

To me, that’s just outstanding writing. I could visualize that entire scene as it happened. Reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison’s style in Beloved.

Plus, it’s just funny to think about the Indians scattering about because of a toy mouse.

I love Waugh’s writing style. I’m on a roll of excellent novels, and A Handful of Dust is another one.

Even better news is that I still have another Waugh novel on the list: Brideshead Revisited is supposed to be even better than A Handful of Dust.

And on we go.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Paparadonne Fame Factory.


    November 8, 2012
  2. That is one funny scene. And you’re right – you can really see it. He caught my imagination in that way all through the book, helping me to get through the dark parts. Think about that same material in the hands of McEwen whose touch is much heavier.

    (In fact, I STILL have not forgiven McEwen for his belabored handling of the plot twist in Atonement and the novel sits with a bookmark on page 121. Waugh or Morrison would have made that passage smooth sailing.)


    November 8, 2012
    • You should give Atonement another chance! It’s heavy handed, but still not bad.

      The toy mouse scene in this novel was probably my favorite passage in the entire book. Loved it.


      November 8, 2012
      • I’ll get back to it sometime this winter. Unlike you, I have the option of letting books mellow a bit when then annoy me or bore me. It took me 18 months to get through Gone With the Wind.

        And a toy mouse scene … something to look forward to.


        November 9, 2012
  3. DearStephenKing #

    Hey! So I nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger award. Because, well, you are. Check out the details here:


    November 11, 2012

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