For a long time, I assumed Evelyn Waugh was a female. It wasn't until a few years ago when I read the uber-hilarious Scoop that I realized he wasn't. That still makes me laugh for some reason. So now every time Waugh comes up in conversation, and the person has never heard of him, I always say, "I know it's a girls name, but Waugh is actually a male." I just wanted to get that out of the way, in case you weren't aware of that either.
So, yeah, Scoop was REALLY funny. A Handful of Dust, not so much. I wasn't expecting it to be Scoop II, certainly. The story is actually fairly dark: Brenda, Tony's wife, is having an affair with John, Brenda & Tony's son dies in a horse riding accident, Brenda decides she wants a divorce, Tony goes on an "expedition" in Brazil where he falls seriously ill and is kidnapped, essentially, by an Englishman living in the jungle who tells a search party that Tony died. Brenda remarries and under the assumption that Tony is dead, his beloved homestead is overtaken by relatives.
What is funny about this novel are the small things: Mrs. Beaver's ideas of not only good interior design, but what Tony's memorial should look like. The debacle when Tony tried to fake having an affair. The minister delivering a sermon he wrote for troops overseas, talking about loved ones thousands of miles away. And the ending - Tony condemned to reading Dickens for the rest of his life. It's not the Marx Brothers here...it's not something you're going to read and laugh out loud about and slap your leg and say, "This Evelyn Waugh, he really is funny!!!!". Maybe it's funny in the same way that Waiting for Godot is funny - it's simply absurd. But I guess that's "British humour" for you.
A Handful of Dust is one of those books you don't have to invest yourself in. If there are deep meanings within it, I didn't notice them. It's comedic writing within a really sad story. It wasn't Scoop, but it was decent in its own right. Waugh is a novelist that know I will continue to read - Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and Brideshead Revisited are all rumored to be good and are novels I'm expecting to someday pick up. If for no other reason than to be able to tell people that despite what they might think, Evelyn in this case is a boy. :-)