Last Orders, by Graham Swift

I first read this Booker-prize-winning novel several years ago, and it's just as good as I remember it. I don't always agree with the Booker judges or those that select the Pulitzer winners; the Governor General's Award is usually a more reliable indicator of a book I will enjoy. But the Booker judges were on the mark with this story of one day in the life of four men. Ordinary men, working men, they have set this day apart to fulfill the last wish of their friend, Jack Dodds, to have his ashes scattered off the Pier at Margate.

Although each character gets his turn at narrating, most of the story is told by Ray, a part-time insurance clerk, part-time punter on the horses. Jack nicknamed him Lucky, back when they were both serving in Northern Africa in WWII. These days Ray is a lonely man, divorced, his only child living in Australia. He tends to make the same joke over and over when the men meet up in their local, The Coach and Horses.

Lenny also served in the war, as a gunner, but not with Jack and Ray. Hot-headed and nursing his grievances, Lenny brings an element of chaos to the day. Vic runs a funeral home, like his father and grand-father before him. He's a bit more level-headed than the others and the way he thinks about the pros and cons of his job are some of the best bits in the book. The final member of the group is Jack's son, Vince, who fell in love with cars and declined to join Dodds and Son, family butchers since 1903. He started small, restoring luxury cars and reselling them at a profit, and now has a good business going.

The missing person, aside from Jack whose ashes are along for the ride, is Jack's wife, Amy, who has declined to come in order to visit their daughter, June, in the institution where has spent her life. A meaningless gesture, the men agree, since June has never yet noticed Amy on her twice-weekly visits.

There is a bit of controversy around this book, because its concept and structure parallels that of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. However, the idea of using a death to reveal the lives and relationships of those left behind is a common one. Even structuring it around a journey to transport a body or ashes is not unique, unlike another recent controversy over taking the idea of a boy alone in a boat with a great cat from a novel by a relatively unknown writer. And Swift at least is the first to acknowledge Faulkner as one of his inspirations. Of course, structuring the story to take place in a single day harks back to Aristotle's unities and is perhaps most famously employed in modern literature in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Concept and structure are all well and good, but it's the writing itself that matters. And the writing here is brilliant. Bits of information are feathered in and presented at just the right time to add shading to the emerging picture of the past and the complex relationships between these men. It was only in this second reading that I could truly appreciate the craft behind these choices. If I were teaching creative writing, I would assign this book as an excellent example of how to bring in backstory and pacing.

Equally I would use it to teach about finding the right voice or voices to tell a story. The voices of the four men (and Jack in flashbacks) are truly individual, each one, pegged to their precarious footholds on the ladder of success. The language they use, their expressions, express their particular experience and their resentment or lack of it toward the others, especially those who've ascended higher. For example, Lenny says, when Amy stops by to pick up Lenny's daughter and declines to come inside, “Like it was because we lived in a prefab and they lived in bricks and mortar.” As the picture develops, emotions come to the fore, allowing the men who would normally talk about sports and what-all over a pint at the pub to connect on a deeper level, inevitably changing how they relate to each other. In some ways, it is Jack who emerges as the most interesting character, the intersection of this group, the vanishing point to whom they all refer.

What novel is your favorite Booker Prize winner?

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