Oh, that we should find ourselves nostalgic for the media circuses of the past, but so it is for the modern-day journalist reading Evelyn Waugh’s classic 1938 satire of the newspaper business, “Scoop.” Through a series of preposterous mix-ups, a timorous homebody of a nature columnist, William Boot, gets sent to cover a brewing civil war in the (fictional) East African nation of Ishmaelia. By another equally preposterous chain of events he ends up delivering the story of a lifetime.
Previously, the only audiobook versions of most of Waugh’s celebrated novels — from “Vile Bodies” to the colonial parody “Set Out More Flags” — were so severely abridged that they made no sense at all. (An exception was Jeremy Irons’ recording of Waugh’s most popular book, “Brideshead Revisited.”) This was ridiculous; the new unabridged audiobook version of “Scoop” — just released with 12 other Waugh titles to coincide with handsome new print editions from Little, Brown — is less than seven hours long, substantially shorter than most other audio titles. There’s not a lot of fat in Waugh’s fiction, and cutting any of it is a crime against the reader.
The paper Boot works for, the Daily Beast, is iconic enough to have given its name to a major Internet news organization, though why any self-respecting publisher would invite the comparison is a mystery. The Beast is owned by a fatuous, self-important peer given to issuing idiotic, capricious orders and then promptly forgetting them. His long-suffering foreign editor mistakes Boot for a novelist whom Lord Copper has been flattered into hiring for the job by a society beauty. Loaded down with unnecessary gear (such as a collapsible canoe and a four-course Christmas dinner in tins) and trepidation, “Boot of the Beast” gets shipped off to Ishmaelia with only the vaguest sense of what he’s supposed to do. (“Lord Copper wants victories!” he’s told.)
Once there, Boot of the Beast finds himself among hardened, tip-starved newshounds who, failing to find much of a story, resort to making things up. The idea of a sleepy, obscure capitol plumped to the gills with first-world correspondents now seems preposterous, but when one of Boot’s new colleagues explains to him that a story, however bogus, becomes irrevocable once it’s been widely reported, you realize that some things never change.
“Scoop” is nimbly read by Simon Cadell, who handles the wide variety of characters and accents with aplomb. Several times I thought Cadell had misconceived a character when he or she was first introduced, only to realize as the book went on that he’d gotten it just right; this is a narrator who carefully works out each voice. “Scoop” is, alas, the only title Cadell narrates in the new Waugh line, but the great Simon Prebble does a couple, including “The Loved One,” and Irons reprises his narration of “Brideshead Revisited.” Any reader-listener who has reveled in the many fine P.G. Wodehouse audiobooks currently available and is casting about for similar, albeit stronger, stuff, has cause to rejoice. There’s enough here to get you through the holidays and into the New Year in style.
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