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Book #49: A Handful Of Dust

Ever read this plotline before?

Rich aristocrat has the perfect life in massive estate with beautiful wife and perfect child. Rich aristocrat’s beautiful wife gets bored and begins an affair. Rich aristocrat experiences brutal tragedy. Rich aristocrat escapes reality by going on an adventure that goes terribly wrong.

I don’t know if I’ve read that exact plotline before, but I’m certain I’ve seen variations of it. The good guy has the perfect life but sees it all fall apart.

In A Handful of Dust, a title that comes from a passage in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Evelyn Waugh follows that formula with incredible results. This is an outstanding novel, even though, yes, it’s depressing. I’ve grown to accept that from almost every book I read on this list.

Since I’ve given you the basic outline of the plot, I won’t go into great detail about that, not that I ever do. I will say that in addition to Tony Last and his crappy wife, A Handful of Dust features one of the biggest mooches in literature: John Beaver, a leacher who lives in his mama’s basement and is hanger-on to British aristocrats.

This guy, John Beaver…wow. I’d like to put him and Frank Wheeler and Rabbit Angstrom in a room and see who can outslime the other two.

Tony Last is an interesting character. He’s obsessed with the massive house he lives in, Hetton, which is not unlike a Downton Abbey. He’s constantly working on small, miniscule stuff around the giant estate, much to the chagrin of his wife.

He’s basically checked out of his personal life, and when his wife begins cheating on him and a family tragedy strikes, he checks out even more.

Somehow, though, Tony Last is a very sympathetic character, at least to me. The deeper you get into the book, the worse Tony’s situation continues to get.

Waugh takes a character who could be haughty and rich and pretentious and turns him into a likeable guy. He’s likeable because, man, you just want the guy to catch a break.

Waugh’s writing actually reminds me a lot of Fitzgerald’s style (you’ll be hearing more about him soon). It’s just so pretty, like a field of colored wildflowers or something.

He also occasionally drops in a “sentence bomb” in the text, that’s a technique I coined after reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. She was quite fond of the sentence bomb.

One perfect example of Waugh’s use of sentence bombs comes at a pivotal part of the novel. I won’t spill the details, but it’s amazing how two words…”perfectly still”…can tell you everything you need to know about a character’s fate.

That’s Waugh’s style–he’s subtle.

This is a novel about deception, manipulation, fakeness, tragedy. It’s about how love can make some people naïve and overly trusting. In all of that, it’s an amazing story that’s beautifully written.

Waugh’s dialogue is entertaining and easy to read, and if his writing style were ice cream, it would be a double scoop of dark chocolate that never fills you up and leaves you wanting more. His dialogue is comprised of short sentences and is quickly paced.

Take this discussion between Tony and a woman he meets on his post-divorce adventure:

Later she said, “You’ll be coming back by Trinidad, won’t you? So I shall see you then. Will you be a long time in the bush?”

“I expect you’ll be married by then.”

“Tony, why haven’t you ever got married?”

“But I am.”



“You’re teasing me.”

“No, honestly I am. At least I was.”


“Are you surprised?”

“I don’t know. Somehow I didn’t think you were. Where is she?”

“In England. We had a row.”

“Oh…What’s the time?”

“Quite early.”

“Let’s go back.”

“D’you want to?”

“Yes, please. It’s been a delightful day.”

“You said that as if you were saying goodbye.”

“Did I? I don’t know.”

See what I mean when I say “fast-paced?”

My beef with the novel, at least the version I own, is the ridiculous alternate ending that takes a crap on Waugh’s original ending to the story. I mentioned this in yesterday’s post, but it’s worth saying again: Alternate endings suck!

Mr. Waugh (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Waugh wrote the alternate ending because the original ending has been previously published as a short story, which meant the copyright was owned by another publisher. It wasn’t a gimmick, but, instead, it was a practical necessity. Even so, I hate it.

And I don’t think modern editions of the novel should include it. The alternate ending just ruins the entire mood of the book and tries to tie a happy little bow on a dark story. It’s reminiscent of the dual endings to A Clockwork Orange, except for the fact that it just doesn’t work in A Handful Of Dust.

In the end, this is a highly readable, entertaining book. Waugh creates interesting characters and a believable story—even if its one that you might have heard before.

The dialogue and the wit of A Handful of Dust are the bright points of the novel. Waugh is good, very good. And I can’t wait to read Brideshead Revisited.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Was anyone hurt?”

The Meaning: As I’ve mentioned previously, the novel’s title comes from the T.S. Eliot poem The Waste Land:

I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

To me, Waugh’s use of the title points back to Tony Last’s ultimate fate. Despite seemingly having everything, Tony’s accumulations eventually amounted to “a handful of dust.”

Highlights: The writing. The dialogue. The wit and dark humor. The length of the novel is perfect.

Lowlights: The alternate ending was terrible, but I’m not sure that it’s included in all versions of the novel. If your edition has the alternate ending, skip it.

Memorable Line: “It would be a dull world if we all thought alike.”

Final Thoughts: If this novel is anywhere near your to-read list, read it next. And if it’s not on your to-read list, put it there now. Right now. At this very moment. This is an outstanding, easy-to-read novel. Definitely worth your time.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teresa #

    Inciteful review, as always. Hadn’t thought about the slime factor of John Beaver. He also rates high on the pathetic scale – no self awareness, no heart, nobody in there. I found Brenda to be equally slimy.

    The comparison to Carson McCullers is right on. Both authors have no compunction about nuking their characters in strange ways. A Handful of Dust is satire and so I expected it. (What an ending!) As a contrast, mcCullers treatment of her characters seemed cruel to me – Dark storytelling on a rampage.


    November 14, 2012
    • I like the way you put that. They do nuke their characters in strange ways. Heart attacks are so boring I guess.


      November 14, 2012
  2. Brideshead Revisted is a wonderful book–you will be in heaven reading it.


    November 14, 2012
  3. Robert, this book sounds wonderful. I have always been a fan of Waugh, but somehow I missed this one. Will get a copy. Thanks!


    November 14, 2012
  4. Duly added to the reading list! I think Vile Bodies is on there too… And Scoop. Really enjoyed your review and think I’d very much like a helping of the double scoop of dark chocolate ice cream-style prose!


    November 14, 2012
    • Go for it. It’s awesome chocolate!


      November 15, 2012
  5. Charles Burk #

    Thanks for the write up. This one has been on my list for too long. I think I’ll move it to the top. The sentence bomb is interesting. Seems like that sort of thing is done for humor quite a bit, slipping some horrible item in with a list of mundane ones. But, for drama, I’m curious now to keep an eye out for it.


    November 14, 2012
  6. Interesting the way in which you describe Tony Last. In real life I know a couple of these guys fairly well…I just don’t root for them. They are not good people.


    November 14, 2012
    • This guy’s a little different. It’s hard not to root for him even though he’s privileged because he just can’t catch a break…and his wife is horrible.


      November 15, 2012
  7. Waugh’s really good with upper-class moochers. There’s a good one in Put Out More Flags as well.


    November 14, 2012
  8. that is a great review! In fact depressingly so, considering I wrote one on this book too and now mine just reads like complete crap. 😦


    November 15, 2012

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