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That’s Life!

Last Orders

by Graham Swift
Knopf, 295 pp., $23.00

It is a peculiar misfortune for a writer to produce a first-rate novel at a young age. The novelist’s is a slow-ripening gift, and most fiction writers when they reach maturity find themselves going hot with shame when they contemplate the fruits of their youth. Some do manage to free themselves of the millstone of an early masterpiece and go on to a triumphantly productive middle age—Flaubert (Madame Bovary in 1857, L’Education sentimentale in 1869), Joyce, Thomas Mann—but writers of lesser genius can find their careers blighted by an early success. Waterland (1983) was not Graham Swift’s first novel—he had previously published two novels and a volume of short stories—but it was the one which brought him his greatest popular acclaim: the Guardian Fiction Prize and the lucrative Winifred Holtby Award, Booker Prize short-listing, and the apotheosis of being made into a Major Motion Picture. The two novels he has published since 1983—Out of This World and Ever After—have been more or less warmly received by the critics, but in almost every review, with awful predictability, unfavorable comparison has been drawn with Waterland. Graham Swift may sometimes have wished he had never written the damned thing.

Yet, book for book, Swift is surely one of England’s finest living novelists. If his reputation is not as great as those of some of his colleagues, this is only because he keeps himself at a decent and wholly admirable distance from what Gore Vidal witheringly refers to as “bookchat.” Nor can you find his marriages or his publishers’ advances discussed in public print; from the biographical details on the jackets of his books was learn that he was born in 1949, and that he lives and works in London: nothing more. Nor is there much to be surmised of his background and attitudes from the internal evidence of his fiction, a wildly unreliable source of personal information even in the most avowedly autobiographical of novelists, and Graham Swift is anything but that.

His novels differ greatly one from another; indeed, were it not for the evidence of his name on the title page, one might think that all six of them had been written by different hands. What links them is an unfussy subtlety of style, a sly wit, and a deep humanistic strain. If he lacks a certain fieriness, that malign, dark flame which burns at the heart of the very greatest fiction, he largely compensates for it with a profound awareness of the difficulty and pain of our transient lives, an awareness that, in the best of his work, swells into an authentic and at times magisterial tragic sense.

A unifying theme in all his dissimilar novels is that of history, both that which is written down, the graven record of a nation’s past, and the continuing and continuously revised stories of the lives of “ordinary” people. As Tom Crick, a history teacher and the narrator of Waterland, puts it,

…history is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. So that it teaches us no short-cuts to Salvation, no recipe for a New World, only the dogged and patient art of making do.

This could well stand as an epigraph for Swift’s new novel, Last Orders. Here the history is that of a group of lower-middle-class Londoners—a butcher, an undertaker, a shopkeeper, an insurance clerk, a car salesman, and their wives and children, especially their daughters. It is set in the 1980s, during the Thatcher years, but the characters’ memories stretch back to World War II, in which four of them fought. In fact, here, as in so much of Swift’s work, war, global and local, and its effects both on the participants and on those left behind at home, is a major though subtly stated preoccupation. Swift is interested in the ways in which a small, thoroughly domesticated, and essentially non-bellicose nation, such as Britain, copes with the military consequences of its status as an empire, or, as we should say now, a former empire.

Swift is quintessentially English in his conviction, as evidenced throughout his books, that the family, not the individual, is the social unit which should be the essential concern of the novel. In this he is a direct heir of the great Victorians, much more so than such contemporaries as the transatlantically fixated Martin Amis or the Eurocentric Julian Barnes—and of course, a continental divide separates him from magic realists like Salman Rushdie, those luminaries in the star wars of the past decade or so as the Empire struck back. In Waterland, the long, complex, and dark history of a family is set against public events spanning more than a century; Ever After (1992) is also a sort of family saga, also much concerned with the past, both of individuals and of a nation. Out of This World (1988), not, I think, one of Swift’s successes, sets a story of several personal dramas, each with its own narrator, against a background of warfare—Vietnam, IRA bombings. The same technique of multiple narration is used in Last Orders, but whereas the previous novel was a sort of string trio, the new one aspires to the condition of the symphony.

It is difficult to decide if the plot of Last Orders is extremely intricate or if it is just that the manner of its exposition makes it seems so. As the novel opens, Jack Dodds, master butcher, has lately died from cancer, leaving behind instructions that his ashes are to be scattered into the sea from the pier at Margate, a once-popular resort near Canterbury on England’s south-east coast. On a day in spring, three of his friends—Lenny Tate, an ex-boxer who now runs a fruit and vegetable shop; Vic Tucker, undertaker and canny observer of human beings in their living and dead states; and Ray “Lucky” Johnson, an insurance clerk with a gift for picking race winners, who is also the dominant voice among the narrators—set out to fulfill Jack’s last wish. They travel the fifty miles or so from London to Margate in a “royal blue Merc, cream seats” owned and driven by Jack’s son, the forty-year-old Vince, who runs a small-time car dealership. Jack’s widow, Amy, does not accompany them, preferring to use the day to visit her mentally retarded daughter, which she has been doing twice weekly for thirty years. As the day progresses, and the foursome travel steadily (or at least purposefully: a couple of pubs are visited along the way), Swift gradually unwinds for us the tangled skein of relationships among them, and between them and their wives and daughters.

The narrative is parceled out among the four men, as well as Amy, the widow, Vince’s wife, Mandy, and Jack, the dead man. The accent is flat London vernacular, and the tone varies between mordant humor, gentle regret, and deep sorrow. Swift carries off this feat of ventriloquism with admirable skill, using a minimum of resources, and he rarely falters; it is not as easy as he makes it seem, for in this kind of writing a word out of place, or a too-fancy phrase, can tarnish a whole page. He is never patronizing to his characters, never smarter than they, and firmly eschews cheap effects, so that, although they may be “small” people, they take on an almost mythic stature in Swift’s presentation of them, of their minor triumphs and abiding sorrows, and their capacity for endurance.

We can hear these Cockney voices, as when Ray recalls his meeting with Amy when she shows him Jack’s letter containing the instructions about what should be done with his ashes:

She looks out again at the river and I can’t tell whether she thinks it’s all a bad joke, on account of how Jack had been finally about to do what it was looking like he’d never do: sell up the shop, hang up his striped apron and look around for some other way to pass the time. On account of how she and Jack had found this nice little bungalow down in Margate. Westgate. It was all set up to go ahead. Then Jack goes down with a nasty touch of stomach cancer.

For all the verisimilitude that Swift achieves, however, there are criticisms to be made, particularly that the voices sound too much alike. Frequently in the middle of a section I found myself going back to the name at the heading to find out who it was that was speaking. Thus there are places where it is hard to distinguish the voice of Ray Johnson, say, from that of the grieving Amy Dodds. Moreover, I was not convinced about the ages of the characters. Ray, Lenny, and Vic are all in their middle sixties, but their language and attitudes hardly differ from those of Vince, or even Vince’s wife, Mandy, who are both some twenty-five years younger. And of course, in a narrative such as this, there is always the danger of sliding into portentous banalities. Here is Ray indulging in a bit of philosophy:

…a man is just a name. Which means something to him it attaches to, and to anyone who deals, same way, in the span of a human life, but it don’t mean a monkey’s beyond that. It don’t mean a monkey’s to things that live longer, like armies and navies and insurance houses and the Horserace Totalisator Board, it all goes on when you’re gone and you don’t make a blip. There’s only one sensible attitude to take, looking at the lists, there’s only one word of wisdom, like when Micky Dennis and Bill Kennedy [wartime comrades of his] copped it: “It aint me, it wasn’t me, it aint ever going to be me.” And there’s only one lesson to be drawn, it’s as cheery as it’s not cheery, and that’s that, it aint living you’re doing, they call it living, it’s surviving.

These are small faults, small lapses, however, when one considers what Swift has achieved in Last Orders.

The tale he tells is as affecting as it is convincing. With delicate skill he creates suspense by withholding until almost the very end the reason why Jack Dodds on his death bed borrowed (extorted, might be a better word) a thousand pounds, from his son Vince. Jack’s business had been failing, he was in debt for twenty thousand pounds, and he wanted Ray, the master tipster, to choose a long shot and put the thousand on it so that, if the horse won, the debt could be paid and Amy saved from penury. The bet is a secret between Jack and Ray, but there is another secret, which Jack does not know: twenty years before, in middle age, Ray and Amy had a brief affair, after Ray’s wife left him and he took to driving Amy in his camper to the mental home to visit her daughter.

There are only two among a web of secrets the characters share or, more often, hide from one another. Vince once got Lenny’s daughter pregnant, and then went off to join the army, leaving Lenny to ask Ray to find him a winner to pay for the daughter’s abortion (Ray’s betting abilities struck me as implausible, but not being a betting man myself, I withhold judgment). And then, Vince is not in fact Jack and Amy’s son, but a war orphan they took in and raised as their own, after their natural child turned out to be hopelessly retarded. The tensions these bits of hidden history set up among the characters give the novel its denseness and profundity, and allow it to build up to a low-key, moving, if somewhat predictable conclusion, with the four men standing on the pier at Margate, “holding their hands out cupped and tight like they’ve each got little birds to set free,” scattering their friend’s ashes to the wind and the waters.

Swift carefully and seemingly effortlessly piles up the layers of narrative by means of a judicious accumulation of small revelations. At the start, it seems that we are in for a gentle idyll:

We head on past the gas works, Ilderton Road, under the railway bridge. Prince of Windsor. The sun comes out from behind the tower blocks, bright in our faces, and Vince pulls out a pair of chunky sun-glasses from under the dashboard. Lenny starts singing, slyly, through his teeth, “Blue bayooo…” And we all feel it, what with the sunshine and the beer inside us and the journey ahead: like it’s something Jack has done for us, so as to make us feel special, so as to give us a treat. Like we’re off on a jaunt, a spree, and the world looks good, it looks like it’s there just for us.

However, as the journey progresses, and the stress lines between the characters begin to show, the narrative darkens and the sense intensifies that Swift has involved us in real, lived lives. Serving as a sort of edgy leitmotif is the constant needling which Vince is subjected to by Lenny, the most potentially violent of the four, and for whom the memory of Vince’s betrayal of his daughter still rankles (a sort of fistfight occurs between the two men, which the aging Lenny loses). Ray also harbors bitter memories—for instance, of the day his wife left him:

If I’d been another man I wouldn’t have just sat there with it getting dark, but not bothering to put the lights on, as if, if I sat very still, I might fade away altogether. Another man would’ve kicked in a cupboard or two or swept every knick-knack off the mantelpiece with one swing of his arm. Another man would’ve put on his coat and gone straight round to where she was and bust open the door if needs be, then bust open his face.

But I aint another man, I’m a little bloke.

I thought, First my daughter buggers off to Sydney and stops writing, now my wife goes and bunks it. And they call me Lucky.

I thought, It don’t help you much, having been at the battle of El Alamein.

The most appealing character in the book is Vic, the undertaker, a peacemaker, a man who keeps his own counsel, whom a lifetime of dealing with the dead and the bereaved has made gentle, careful, and discreet. Late in the book we learn that twenty years ago, Vic had by chance seen Ray and Amy, obviously lovers, on one of their visits to Amy’s daughter, and has kept their secret for twenty years—and will continue to keep it, to the grave.

Amy herself is one of those strong, enduring women that England used to produce in abundance up to the time of the war, when the class structure was still firmly in place. Against her husband’s wishes—Jack believed they should simply forget about June, the retarded daughter—she persists in making the long and tedious bus journey twice a week to the hospital, even though June has never once, in all the years shown the slightest sign that she recognizes Amy as her mother. Strong too, in her way, is Vince’s wife, Mandy, a grown-up waif, whom Jack and Amy took in when she ran away from her family in the north of England.

I hung around in pubs and dance-halls, I twisted and shouted, I let hands scurry up my skirt, and worse. I let myself be pushed up against walls. I gave Mum and Neville hell, which was only what they gave me. But more than that, I said to my best friend and partner-in-sin, Judy Battersby, “How about it? London. Bright Lights. You and me.” But she never showed up, she chickened out, the cow.

Swift’s is not the England of Thatcher and her men, an England with what Philip Larkin characterized as “a cast of crooks and tarts,” the shady bond dealers, the arms traders and shameless government fixers, the wellheeled heedless toffs and neofascist skinheads. Quietly, but with conviction, he seeks to reaffirm the values of decency, loyalty, love. He is, as John Dewey beautifully said of Emerson, “the sage of ordinary days.” Never blind to the horrors of life, the pettiness of human beings, their greed and resentments, Swift yet insists on the essential dignity of humble people, whose lives he portrays with deft understatement and clear-eyed attention. Amy Dodds remembers the summers before the war when she used to go out into the countryside to make a few shillings picking hops:

…down there in the garden of England, with the sunshine and the fresh air and the haystacks and the hop-bines, and that feeling, though it was stay-put and keep-at-it work, bins all in a row, three or four to a bin like a factory outdoors, of being set loose. On the loose. Living in huts and tents like natives, living on the land, no fixed abode. No hawkers, no gypsies, no dogs, no hoppers. The smell of fry-ups at night. Wood fires, billycans, oil lamps, natter.

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