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  • Written by Kate Christensen
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On Sale: July 29, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48433-8
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Hugo Whittier–failed poet and former kept man–is a wily misanthrope with a taste for whiskey, women, and his own cooking. Afflicted with a rare disease that will be fatal unless he quits smoking, Hugo retreats to his once aristocratic family’s dilapidated mansion, determined to smoke himself to death without forfeiting any of his pleasures. To his chagrin, the world that he has forsaken is not quite finished with him. First, his sanctimonious older brother moves in, closely followed by his estranged wife, their alleged daughter, and his gay uncle. Infuriated at the violation of his sanctum, Hugo devises hilariously perverse ploys to send the intruders packing. Yet the unexpected consequences of his schemes keep forcing him to reconsider, however fleetingly, the more wholesome ingredients of love, and life itself.


October 9, 2001--All the lonely people indeed. Whoever they are, I've never been one of them. The lack of other people is a balm. It's the absence of strain and stress. I understand monks and hermits, anyone who takes a vow of silence or lives in a far-flung cave. And I thought--hoped, rather--that I would live this way for the rest of my life, whatever time is left to me.

This morning I woke up, lit a cigarette as always. I remembered that Dennis was downstairs, and then instinctively I reached for my pen and rooted around for this old blank notebook, and here I still am, writing about myself with the date at the top of the page like a lovelorn teenage diarist with budding breasts and a zit she can't get rid of. Words stay neatly in the head during times of solitude, they don't jump out through the pen to land splat on the page. Knowing that Dennis is lurking down there makes me jumpy. I have a nasty feeling he's not leaving anytime soon. His presence has diverted my life from its natural course.

Here I am, a decaying forty-year-old man in his decaying childhood home at the ruined finale of a wasted life. My hand is stiff. My faculties are moribund. Outside, below my tower window, the Hudson River sparkles and glints with untoward goodwill, blue, placid, and untroubled today, but sure to change its mood. There it lies, and has lain all my life, always changing, always there, in all its mercurial quiddity.

The lascivious pleasure I derive from phrases such as "mercurial quiddity" might possibly be all that prevents me now from flinging myself downstairs to beat my brother about the face and neck with my bare hands, shouting invectives and heartfelt pleas to go away. I wish more than anything that Dennis had stayed where he belonged, across the river with his wife Marie and their spawn, the bony cantankerous second-grader Evie and the bubbly sexy kindergartner Isabelle. Girls: this generation of Whittier sperm seems to produce only girls. It's the end of our name and our line, unless they turn out to be lesbians who adopt children with their "wives" and call them Whittier. God fucking forbid.

It took me I don't know how long to write the above, and then I stared into space smoking and ruminating for half an hour at least. A shooting pain in my foot brought me back. Pain has become my chronic and intermittent link to the world, among other things--I refuse to take painkillers. The inherited puritan hidden deep inside my core is the only part of me that's satisfied at the retribution--I did the crime, I'll do the time--maybe it's a Yankee diehard need to tough it out as long as I can. No parole, no halfway house. I'll eventually cave when it gets worse, in the months to come. Weeks to come.

Two nights ago, I was sitting on the large side veranda where I always sit, smoking and knocking back an occasional snort of whiskey and keeping my own counsel, when a car turned in at the driveway. I saw the headlights first and then the make: a Dodge Dart, which meant my brother. To the car was hitched a U-Haul trailer, which was clearly laden with belongings: the other prodigal son, returned to the roost.

He parked, turned off the engine, got out of the car, and stretched, one hand propping up the small of his back as if he'd driven hundreds of miles instead of just across the Hudson. Probably thinking himself unobserved, he let out a long, hard sigh.

"Well," I called. "If it isn't Dudley Doright."

His posture changed the instant he became aware that he was being watched: he stood erect, his long, handsome, abundantly haired head flung back. "Hugo!" he snapped manfully. "Hello!"

"I see you've brought gifts."

He came up to the porch and thumped me on the back in a sort of stilted hug. "Not gifts," he said. "My worldly possessions."

"She kicked you out?"

Something passed over his face, a weary premonition of the explaining he was going to have to do in the near future of his presumed marital failure, but he squelched it and said, "Marie has asked me to live elsewhere for a while, yes."

"You're joking."

Again I saw the effort it took for him to say in that bluff and seemingly easy way, "The truth is, it's about time. This has been a long time coming. It's sort of a relief, I have to admit. Is that whiskey you're drinking?"

I offered him the bottle, which he eyed without touching. I'm sure he suspects that I only brush my teeth once or twice a year, which as a matter of fact is not the case.

"I'd better not just yet," he said.

"All righty then," I said. "Suit yourself." I tipped some more into my mouth.

"I'll carry some things inside first," he said. "Then I'll be very glad to join you in that drink. You're still in the tower room?"

"Still and forever."

"I'll take Grandma's old room then. At least it has its own bathroom. You have to go all the way through to the landing to get to the nearest one from the tower."

"I piss into a pitcher in cases of great urgency and dump it out on the lawn beneath my window," I remarked pleasantly, but he had already bounded down the steps. I watched my brother make several trips from U-Haul to house without offering to help him. Let him ask if he wanted help. "Mi casa es su casa," I said to the empty veranda. "No matter how much I may wish otherwise."

He bounded back out to the veranda from the foyer with a glass in his hand. He extended it and said, "All right, that's that. All squared away. I assume the bed linens in the closet upstairs are clean?"

"Still clean," I said, "from the last time anybody washed them twenty years ago."

"I opened the windows up there; the room needs a good airing." He took a healthy gulp of whiskey. "The whole place needs an overhaul. It's falling down. You've let it go to seed, Hugo. You haven't done a thing to keep it up in all these years."

"This is true, as a matter of fact. But the process began long before I came back. No one's made any improvements in . . . how long since Dad died? Almost thirty-five years."

"I think it's time someone did. And I seem to be the only one willing."

I shifted in my chair and said through something like rising panic, "Dennis, you can't seriously be going to live here again."

"Why not?"

"Because you bought your house before you met Marie. It's your house. Let her move out. She ought to descend upon her elderly parents, brighten their dimming lives. Mellow their dotage. And make their hearts glad with the fluting cries of little children."

"First of all," Dennis said with a furrow in his brow, "the Dupins live in the city. Second, Marie has a private practice up here, she can't abandon her clients. Third, we agreed the girls would stay with her, and we don't want to uproot them. We'll figure it out eventually, but for now it makes the most sense for me to stay here."

"Sense to whom?" I muttered through the mouth of the bottle.

"Come again?" he said absently.

"Where will you do your . . . work? Don't you have a studio over there at your house? Won't you be a mollusk naked and quivering without a carapace here?"

"I'm taking a break for now. I just completed a new series and I'd like to clear my head before I start anything new. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think I should try to fix up this place. Someone's got to save it from complete ruin."


"It's our heritage."

"Why does that matter?"

"It's who we are."

"This house may be who you are, but it's not who I am. I'm no mollusk and this is no carapace. More like a maggot feeding off a dying corpse, that's me, here."

"You think so?"

"I know so."

And so forth. Our conversational style hasn't changed in decades.

I stopped writing once again after that last sentence and stared into space for . . . a lacuna, a miasma, a hiatus, an unwieldy string of vowels' worth of time. I haven't written anything in years, and every word I write now feels false and stilted as the gestures of long-unused muscles. But still . . . all of a sudden I have to write again . . . a physical compulsion or necessary ablution, like shitting or shaving, or both. Michel de Montaigne, my primary bedfellow these days along with cigarettes and pain, would know what I mean by this.

Dennis has been back at Waverley only a day and a half, but already I see my old, solitary life as something lost, through a fog of mournful nostalgia. In that old, lost, former life, I took my breakfast out to the side porch on warm mornings with coffee cup, cigarettes, lighter, and ashtray, and sat for hours, with a book or without, watching the river in a completely solitary silence that is the closest thing to happiness I've ever known. In the winters, I sat at the kitchen table with the stove roaring, without any snot-nosed pestering local dependents or demanding chatty hangers-on to watch me, interrupt my thoughts, demand my attention. Not many people can say that. This is a freedom I'm convinced everyone dreams of, secretly. Sonia, my God, that jolie-laide bucktoothed Polish flat-chested bitch, she had me for a while, but since she left, I've been impervious, unfettered, and able to live exactly as I pleased. Almost ten years, it's been. . . . My days were full and productive. I slept, woke, drank coffee or whiskey, smoked, read books, sat in my chair looking out over the Hudson River as the light changed slowly and the air darkened as evening came. In the evenings, I cooked myself elaborate feasts and fancies in the kitchen, one lamp burning, my sleeves rolled up. Steam rose from the stove, the radio played, wind howled outside. When the meal was ready, I ate alone at the table, radio still on. A book was often propped against my whiskey bottle, but most nights I didn't read, I concentrated on tasting the food I'd made. This required all of my attention. I absorbed the story of the flavors, tracking the relationships between ingredients, one bite following another with anticipation, as if I were in the grip of some intricate and suspenseful prandial plot, a gustatory novel on a plate.

My rare visitors over the years have been women lured here every now and again for sexual purposes. Jennifer, the last, was the forty-two-year-old auburn-haired plumpish admissions administrator at the nearby liberal-arts college. For a number of months, she and I enjoyed a casual ongoing affair, which proceeded nicely enough and might have gone nowhere forever as far as I was concerned, but came to an abrupt halt about a year ago, when she reunited with and then precipitously married an old boyfriend I'd never heard of.

Since then I've been reluctantly celibate, but am always on the lookout.

Meanwhile, through the years I have not encouraged and in fact have scarcely tolerated Dennis's occasional casual drop-ins, with or without his offspring but never with his wife Marie, who has never liked me. He came ostensibly to touch base with the semi-estranged brother but really to make sure I wasn't burning all the fainting couches to keep warm, or giving away any heirloom silverware, or otherwise squandering his inheritance and history. He has always been suspicious of my caretaking abilities, and with very good reason.

It's breakfast time. Under normal circumstances--which is to say, if I were alone here--I would stroll by the options in my mental automat: omelet with leftover chunks of lamb, a daub of sour cream, some chopped parsley; or a fried jumble of eggs, onions, potatoes, and sausage, puddles of ketchup; or maybe a sandwich of smoked herring fillets on toasted rye with horseradish and mustard; or a big chunk of extra-sharp cheddar, an apple cut into eighths, and a wad of sourdough bread ripped from a whole bakery loaf.

But Dennis is down there in the kitchen, all chipper and clean-shaven and wanting to talk to me. There's nothing I dread and resent more first thing in the morning than the double-headed monstrous hydra of obligatory pleasantries. It makes me want to bash his head in with a tire iron. As long as he's here, my life is ruined. Not to put too fine a point on it.

October 11--Good morning! I'm still alive, I see.

If I can hold on through the night, the morning is always better.

Here I am again, Dennis downstairs as usual in the kitchen with his wet-haired, soap-smelling self wedged in a chair, itching for a little male bonding with the kid brother--Jesus, it's unbearable, but this is his house too.

Montaigne carved on the roof beams of his own hermit tower the following admirable thoughts:

The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge.

I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine.

Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills a hollow head.

Not more this than that--why this and not that? Have you

seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool.

Man, a vase of clay.

I am human, let nothing human be foreign to me.

What inanity is everything!

What inanity indeed. If I don't have a cup of coffee soon, my head will implode.

I'm smoking, as always, a long slow suicide that in recent years has got a fuck of a lot faster. Smoke, smoke. In draw, out blow, rush of nicotine. The first one of the day is the only one that matters to me, all the other ones are just habit. I wake up jonesing, shaken from the long night of pain. And the match, the dry sulfur hiss of promise, of comfort. And the first deep lungful of gray foul-fresh smoke. And then the finest moment of each day, the zing. I can never get it back all day long, no matter how much or little I smoke, no matter how carefully I space out the cigarettes, and I think I've tried everything, every trick of timing and dosage. Short of upgrading to heroin or crack, there's nothing left to do, it's just what it is now. And heroin or crack would eventually turn into the same drill.

Pain kept me awake all night; I'm saggy-faced and wrung out. Nerves, the electrical wiring of the body. Wish I could short-circuit myself. I seem to have suddenly entered a temporal waiting room I won't get out of until I'm alone again. Last night I read some of Montaigne's Essais, in French. My French isn't nearly good enough for this, so it helped me fall back to sleep, finally.

From the Hardcover edition.
Kate Christensen

About Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen - The Epicure's Lament

Photo © Michael Sharkey

KATE CHRISTENSEN is the author of six previous novels, most recently The AstralThe Great Man won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has published reviews and essays in numerous publications, most recently the New York Times Book ReviewBookforumOElle, and Gilt Taste. She writes an occasional drinks column for The Wall Street Journal called "With a Twist." Her blog can be accessed at: http://katechristensen.wordpress.com. She lives in Portland, Maine.



“ A mini-masterpiece. . . . Hugo is one of the most memorable creations in recent fiction. His story is an exquisite meal served in literary, haute cuisine prose. Discerning palates will savor it.” –People

“Funny and aesthetically playful. . . . Christensen beautifully handles this very male point of view, with a complexity of language and a set of intricate emotions (both hidden and revealed) that recall Nabokov’s Lolita.” –Elle

“Christensen gives a virtuoso performance, tossing off perfect sentences seemingly at random, delivering them with a sneer that makes them more delicious.” –Time

“Deliciously wicked black comedy. . . . The Epicure’s Lament is a razor dissection of the inside of a rogue’s mind, with wonderfully subtle asides into philosophy, literature and, even, food. Hugo is a find. And so is his journal.” –Detroit Free Press
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A mini-masterpiece. . . . Hugo is one of the most memorable creations in recent fiction.” –People

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Kate Christensen’s The Epicure’s Lament, an amusing yet poignant novel about a brilliant scoundrel whose loathsome escapades and shocking musings are hilarious, outrageous, and irresistible.

About the Guide

Self-avowed misanthrope and trust-fund beneficiary Hugo Whittier has decided to live out the brief remainder of his middle age in his decaying family home, Waverley, in upstate New York. He fills his days making runs to town to maintain his supply of cigarettes, preparing fine meals, and hitting on much younger women than himself. Although he is dying of Buerger’s disease–a nearly always terminal disease caused by smoking–Hugo refuses to quit. But Hugo’s intention to die quietly, albeit painfully, alone is thwarted by a parade of family members who slowly overtake his home. First, his brother Dennis, who has just left his wife, followed by the equally unwelcome return of Sonia and Bellatrix, Hugo’s own estranged wife and daughter, after ten years of separation. Next, Hugo’s aging gay bachelor Uncle Tom, whom homophobic Hugo naturally despises, announces his intention to return. To top it off, a mysterious figure from Hugo’s murky past turns up in the sleepy Hudson River town. While these events unfold, Hugo scribbles furiously into notebooks, recording in his final months the details of his pain, his general disgust with his family, his complicated and somewhat sordid past, his affairs with (and lust for) a variety of women, and the preparation of his last gourmet meal. Hugo’s original voice is caustic and clever, often vicious, and sometimes weary–but always honest. In spite of himself, Hugo manages to insinuate himself under the skin of the reader, who, like Hugo’s family, can’t seem to get enough of him.

About the Author

Kate Christensen is also the author of the novels In the Drink and Jeremy Thrane. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in various publications including Salon, The Hartford Courant, Elle, and the bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.

Discussion Guides

1. What exactly is Hugo’s lament? What about people and life causes him such antipathy? Do fine food, cigarettes, and sex provide satisfaction or fulfillment for Hugo?

2. Hugo claims that he desires to be alone, but he often finds himself surrounded by people. Does he ever choose company instead of solitude, and what do these choices betray about Hugo’s character?

3. Is there anything enticing or appealing about Hugo’s character? Why do women find him attractive? Why does his family care about him? Does the reader come to care about him, too? If so, why? Does Hugo change his attitude with respect to his family by the end of his memoirs? Does Hugo really want to die, or might Hugo’s carefully planned Christmas Eve suicide attempt be, ironically, a final attempt to connect to his family?

4. Over the course of Hugo’s memoirs Christensen slowly reveals to the reader the cracks in his tough outer shell: his strong love for his father and his deep-seated resentment of his mother [pp. 69 and 268]. These feelings culminate in a tearful therapy session at the end of the book [p. 342]. Does the damage to Hugo’s childhood psyche by the loss of his father and the treatment he received from his crazy mother explain his behavior as an adult? Is the emotional revelation during Hugo’s therapy session at the end of the novel satisfying or frustrating?

5. Is Hugo really a victim and not a malefactor? Is it true, as Hugo states, that he “never knowingly caused harm to another person” [p. 309]?

6. Hugo observes wryly, “Dennis and I are limited to well-built old American cars and ordinary women with pedestrian tastes, which seem to suit both of us equally well, one of the few things we have in common” [p. 44]. What is Dennis like, and do Hugo and Dennis have more in common than Hugo claims? Could Hugo’s description of Dennis as a “narcissist” [p. 48] apply to Hugo as well?

7. How thoroughly does Christensen develop the secondary characters in the novel? How is the reader’s perception of them affected by the fact that characters such as Sonia, Dennis, Marie, Stephanie, and Hugo’s parents are presented only from Hugo’s viewpoint in his notebooks? Are any of the other characters more or less sympathetic than Hugo?

8. Hugo tells Stephanie, “My wife left me because I both defied and bored her” [p. 59]. Is this an accurate explanation for Sonia and Hugo’s separation? What is the nature of each of the marriages portrayed in the book? How would Hugo, Dennis, and Stephanie each describe their own marriages and marriage in general?

9. Hugo informs us, “I began to write; I disliked it very much and still do. However, it never seemed to be a matter of preference but absolute necessity” [p. 90]. Why does Hugo write? How has his failure as an author affected him?

10. What kind of inspiration does Hugo find in the writings and lives of M.F.K. Fisher and Montaigne? How are these two literary figures alike and how are they different? How does Christensen use other literary works [e.g., Anna Karenina, (pp. 32 and 298) and Hamlet (p. 252)], as metaphors in the novel?

11. Hugo describes himself and his feelings about his family home: “I, as a laissez-faire, elitist man of no people, am of the (minority) opinion that the ludicrously named Waverley and the equally ludicrous life-style it was meant to support have reached a necessary end. . . . In these rooms I feel the intolerable pressure of too many things, all the historical significance of a family whose names are, in the end, more important and memorable than any of the individual souls who bore them” [pp. 39–41]. What does the image of Waverley symbolize about American society? How does Hugo both personify Waverley and defy it? Is Hugo’s distaste for his family heritage somehow hypocritical or, at least, disingenuous?

12. Hugo writes, “The beauty of human domestic existence is the control we exert over our surroundings. Nature is only attractive to me insofar as I can mow, cook, kill, or change its components to my liking. The tree outside my window is a microcosm of inhuman order” [p. 73]. What does the tree’s resident, a bird Hugo names Erasmus after the medieval theologian, symbolize for Hugo? Is Hugo’s obsessive-compulsive behavior regarding order evidence of deeper psychological problems?

13. A review of The Epicure’s Lament in Publishers Weekly describes Hugo as an antihero. What is an antihero? Does Hugo fit this literary archetype? Christensen herself has described her novel as belonging to a genre she labels Loser Lit. She explains, “It is kind of like pornography—you know what it is when you see it. For me, it has to do with failure, anger, a kind of desperate hilarity and arrogance. In Loser Lit, the hero has no odds to overcome. They are anti-pluck. They have been given everything at the beginning and they screw it up.” (Review of The Epicure’s Lament in TheJournalNews.com, February 22, 2004). How are the concepts of Loser Lit and the anti-hero similar or different?

14. Does the specter of September 11, 2001, referenced in several instances [pp. 19 and 83], impact the behavior of the characters in the novel or the mood of the novel in any way?

15. How are the Jewish characters (Shlomo, Tovah and Louisa) and the religion of Judaism (“the greatest religion in human history,” p. 79, according to Hugo) portrayed in the novel?

16. Is Christensen, as a female writer, successful in creating a believable male voice in Hugo?

Suggested Readings

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News; Richard Russo, Empire Falls; Ian McEwan, Atonement; Ann Packer, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier; Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love; Susan Minot, Rapture and Evening; Nancy Clark, The Hills at Home; Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys; Jane Hamilton, The Book of Ruth; Elinor Lipman, The Dearly Departed; M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating; Joan Reardon, Poet of the Appetites: The Life and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher; Michel Montaigne, The Complete Works (Everyman’s Library).

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