Saturday 22 October 2016

Books: Think 'Father Ted' as imagined by Tarantino

Last Night on Earth, Kevin Maher, Little, brown, €17.99

Padraic McKiernan

Published 06/04/2015 | 02:30

The cover of Last Night on Earth, by Kevin Maher
The cover of Last Night on Earth, by Kevin Maher

Well they do say you should write about what you know. Irish-born writer Kevin Maher made a virtue of that in his debut novel, The Fields, and he's working off a similar template for his zany, turbo-charged follow-up, Last Night on Earth. Pertinent film references pepper the narrative as you might expect from an author who is also an occasional presenter, alongside Claudia Winkleman, of BBC's Film 2015, while Irish colloquialisms are thrown around like, well, snuff at a wake. Think Father Ted as imagined by Quentin Tarantino and you're well on the way to getting a feel for the narrative strands that punctuate this picaresque piece.

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Set in London, the frenetic narrative is told through the eyes of an Irish emigrant, Jay Concanon and focuses initially on the breakdown of his marriage. His relationship with Shauna may have started out as a match made in heaven but the botched home delivery that left their beloved daughter Bonnie brain-damaged precipitated a downward spiral that has resulted in divorce and Shauna falling into the arms of a "sleazebag" Danish psychologist.

Three years later brings us to 1999 and as Britain prepares to celebrate the New Millenium, Jay's efforts to rise from the ashes are far from phoenix-like. A flat-share with two eccentric Kenyan businessmen is not exactly child-friendly while a burgeoning "meeja" career hinges on his ability to find the finance required to move a possible reality TV show beyond the concept stage.

A bad situation is made worse with the arrival of a blast from Jay's Irish past. And with a name like The Clappers, it won't come as a surprise to read that blast is the operative word here. Described as a cross between Sinead O Connor and former wrestler Hulk Hogan, this "fine big girl" has arrived in London to make things better for Jay as part of her 12 Step programme. She proves, however, to be the ultimate chaos catalyst. The fall-out from her visit is extreme and eventually leads to Jay's first trip back to Ireland in nearly ten years. Knock airport is the first port of call and it isn't long before Jay is being treated like a returning messiah. It turns out Jay has some history in this regard and the morally bankrupt Bishop Gannon sees in Jay the "touchstone" that he can exploit to stoke up some "pre-millenial dread" amongst the locals. Apparently, there are fears that the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December is destined to usher in the End of Days and with his impeccable credentials, Jay is the bishop's preferred choice as brand ambassador for the apocalypse. In short, the bishop has dreamt up a new way to fleece the flock and all that's needed is an authentic harbinger of doom. Throw in an audience with Jay's mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's and you're well on the way to getting a sense of the surreal manner in which proceedings pan out.

Cocaine addiction, near-death experience and a contribution from the "voice of God" are just a few of the other ingredients in the mix as this effervescent novel careers towards its conclusion. Light without being slight, the plot implausibilities and cartoonish characterisation do grate a little at different stages. The author is an authentic word wizard, however, and his assured comic touch compensates for the diminished credibility that ensues from the plunge into a swamp of Celtic psychedelica.

As if to exacerbate this sense of the latter, letters to an Irish Mammy that could double as dispatches from the Bates Motel are used as a means of literary exposition. Though most of the satirical slingshots hit the spot, there is the occasional discordant note. Scathing depictions of Hollywood air-heads never move beyond the standard of 'so what' while Irish audiences are likely to find descriptions of the Catholic clergy as an exclusive club of "feckin hypocrites, gombeens and pederasts," a tad on the dated side. I mean, we all know at this stage that Sinn Fein are the new Catholic church when it comes to covering up child abuse. Dostoevsky it ain't then but those in the market for a compelling if disposable diversion will find this punchy read takes you where you want to go.

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