Hugo Whittier is dying. One of the heirs to a massive fortune, Hugo has never had to work in his life. After frittering away his early youth chasing down odd jobs and odd women, he finally comes back home to roost. Home is a mansion, Waverly Estates, which much to Hugo’s annoyance is getting increasingly crowded these days. Hugo’s brother, Dennis, has moved back, hoping to reboot his life after a fall-out with his wife. After a long time away, Hugo’s own wife, Sonia, is back with his “daughter” Bellatrix. And then there is “Fag Uncle Tommy,” who even boots Hugo out of his precious “tower room” in the mansion.
As it happens, Hugo’s cigarette habit is killing him. He has Buerger’s disease, which causes extreme shooting pain in his legs. It is only a matter of time before the disease advances and polishes him off completely. The prospect of death around the corner is an unusually liberating one for Hugo. He would rather die than give up his loves—cigarettes and whiskey. The Epicure’s Lament is woven around Hugo’s last days and is filled with his biting, sarcastic take on life, and its various ills. “I always wonder about the fact that, no matter how hard one may try to live without the intolerable burden of society, the unwelcome recognition of a face, perfect solitude is always shown to be temporary, a phantasm, a dream,” says Hugo, “I envy the lonely. Loneliness, which is to say neediness, drives others away and keeps them at bay.”
The disease has not dampened Hugo’s sexual appetite any, and he spends a fair amount of time chasing down members of the fairer sex. At the same time, Hugo is capable of grace and insight, especially when it comes to matters of death, something he has obviously spent a lot of time analyzing. He often quotes his favorite author, Montaigne: “The most beautiful death is the one that is most willed. Our lives depend on the will of others; our death depends on our own.”
Kate Christensen’s novel is engaging reading mainly because Hugo is such an in-your-face protagonist. He says things that you have (sometimes) wanted to say yourself but couldn’t. Evidently this “loser lit” genre is big these days, and Hugo is certainly an entertaining and winning example. However, as the novel progresses, Hugo’s voice gets to be too stifling, even mono-dimensional. He seems to have fallen so deeply in love with the sound of his own voice that he just prattles on and on, opining about every random topic that comes his way. The novelty, even the shock value of Hugo’s rude, hard-boiled statements seems to dither away; he becomes merely an annoying presence by novel’s end. Ironically, it is the end that is the best part of The Epicure’s Lament. By this time, Hugo has mellowed a teeny-tiny bit and Christensen reveals some new depths to his character that round off the story nicely.
At one point, Hugo explains his outlook on life after the failure of his writing career (mostly from lack of trying). “Solitude was comforting,” he says, “other people made me weary. Conversations felt pointless and draining. A psychologist might have called what I was going through a breakdown of some kind; I called it a whole new way of life.” With Hugo around, the reader soon realizes, attitude is everything, even, possibly, the only thing.