There's a definite scarcity of good monsters these days. Oh, nobody says anything about it--nobody wants to be outed as a monster lover--but really nasty, credible, plausible evil is in short supply. (At least in the world of fiction. Plenty of it running around in real life.) Voldemort? Cardboard. Magneto? Not bad, except for that silly hat. Sauron? He's an eyeball. What, he's going to blink you to death?
This makes one appreciate Hugo Whittier, the narrator and quasi-hero of Kate Christensen's remarkable novel The Epicure's Lament (Doubleday; 351 pages), all the more. At 40, Hugo is a lazy, handsome, brilliant, bitter, unscrupulous trust-fund dilettante who--having failed miserably as a drug dealer, gigolo and writer--is rattling around his ancestral mansion in upstate New York, waiting to die. Hugo is a coldhearted bastard, or he likes to think he is, and he spews hilariously venomous bile on anyone who comes within range. He is also a snob, a genuine sophisticate who sits around musing on Montaigne and preparing exquisite meals for himself. Hugo has a rare and painful disease that could be cured if only he would stop smoking, but he won't. Did we mention about the lazy?
Hugo has done all he can to become a hermit, but he can't quite seem to saw through those last few stubborn fibers connecting him to the rest of humanity. His wimpy artist brother Dennis turns up on his doorstep, fleeing an imploding marriage. Both men develop raging crushes on Stephanie, a bored and incorrigibly sexy lawyer who happens to be Dennis' wife's best friend. Then Hugo's estranged con-woman wife Sonia rematerializes and installs herself chez Hugo with her daughter Bellatrix, who may or may not be his child.
Will Hugo carry out his suicide by cigarette? Is Bellatrix in fact his flesh and blood? Why does he insist on being such a jerkface? All compelling questions, but the real fun is watching Hugo squirm and rant like a crazed Frasier Crane as he desperately tries to avoid the company of his fellow characters, whom he despises almost as much as he hates himself. Hugo belongs on the same gnarled family tree as Lolita's Humbert Humbert as well as--somewhere deep down in the root system--Hannibal Lecter. They fascinate because they reconcile exquisite refinement with total loathsomeness with an ease that suggests some chilling, unspoken connection between the two.
It takes a master puppeteer to put this kind of thing across, and Christensen gives a virtuoso performance, tossing off perfect sentences seemingly at random, delivering them with a sneer that makes them more delicious. Surveying a windblown Sunday morning, Hugo writes, "The Hudson Valley quivers in this Sabbath-morning light; the sky is a blinding bowl of leaves and birds." Dr. Lecter couldn't have said it better.
There are two kinds of monsters: those with hearts of gold and those that turn out to have no heart at all. You'll have to wait till the end of The Epicure's Lament to find out which one Hugo is. But as with all monsters, bad or secretly good, the pain he inflicts on others is only the outward expression of a greater hell within. --By Lev Grossman