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A Bag of Heroin and a Crisp White Shirt

Published: January 4, 2004

Most of the second novel takes place inside Patrick’s head. His father has died and the journey to collect the ashes becomes a 48-hour drug binge in 1980’s Manhattan. Patrick’s addled thoughts give rise to the most stylistically ambitious passages of the trilogy, a kind of pharmo-phantasmagoria. After one particularly incautious moment of indulgence, there is a surreal playlet performed by various characters from his subconscious and a few literary figures (“A hit, a very palpable hit,” puns the courtier from “Hamlet”). It comes off like the Circe chapter of “Ulysses” rewritten by Monty Python, but, although copying Joyce is a doomed enterprise, it is perhaps an achievement that the result is not a total embarrassment. Where St. Aubyn really succeeds, however, is in evoking the desperate logistics of serious drug use—the careful arithmetic required to make a limited stash last the night and the perpetual acts of dissimulation, like “that authentic-sounding flush with which every junkie leaves a bathroom, hoping to deceive the audience that crowds his imagination.”

By the third novel, Patrick is clean: “Nowadays when I go into loos I say to myself, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t do drugs anymore!’ “ It generally takes him a moment to realize that he’s in the place for its intended purpose.

The tone of the writing has mellowed slightly. St. Aubyn’s dandified barbs are as acerbic as ever, but the worldview behind them is less unremittingly dark. Characters who seemed hateful in the first novel are now more forgivingly portrayed.

The format of the novel is, once again, a comedy of manners, this time arranged around that staple of the genre, a country-house weekend. The handling, however, is far more assured than at the start of the trilogy. St. Aubyn expertly mixes pathos and humor, most notably in a scene where Patrick unburdens himself to his best friend on the matter of his childhood, but is continually interrupted by an overzealous waiter. St. Aubyn also pulls off a memorable tour de force by introducing Princess Margaret as a fictional guest. Even those who profess no interest in the Royals are likely to be tantalized by this glimpse of overpowering obtuseness and snobbery. The climax—in which the French ambassador inadvertently splatters the princess’s dress with food and is commanded to clean it up (“ ‘Wipe,’ she said with terrifying simplicity”) -- is a comic masterstroke of which Evelyn Waugh himself might have been proud.

The very rich make a tricky subject for a writer because they exist at such a remove from the quotidian bourgeois grind that has been, historically, the fuel of the novel. St. Aubyn’s trilogy—a clutch of modern novels trapped inside the rusting armor of an old-fashioned one—often seems in danger of losing direction, not unlike its hero. But it is saved by its clearsightedness and bitter brilliance, which seem likely to win the admiration of a small but extremely well-spoken readership.

Leo Carey is on the staff of The New Yorker