Picaresque hero is lacking
Dublin author writes lively, comic scenes but the tone is all wrong
This is the story of Jay, the only child of a demented Catholic mother, who escapes her malign influence in the west of Ireland by fleeing to London. There he finds work, first with an Irish builder and then on a television project, where he meets American-born Shauna.
They fall in love, move in together and Shauna becomes pregnant. But the baby girl, Bonnie, is born brain-damaged and a traumatised Shauna leaves Jay for her Danish psychiatrist. And there are other misfortunes, not least an incident in which Jay's increasingly insane mother mutilates herself by putting her hand into a food processor. Meanwhile back in London, her son, blamed for the near-drowning of his beloved daughter, is granted even less access to her than before. He has also become a cocaine addict.
Grim reading, you might think, but no. This is in the tradition of the picaresque, which my dictionary defines as "an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a roguish but appealing hero" and which was also the preferred style of Maher's 2013 debut novel, The Fields.
In that novel, the teenager who was the book's main character had prodigious sexual access with an older girl in the south Dublin suburbs of the 1980s, while seemingly not much affected by a rapist priest's sexual assaults on him. The action then moved to London, where events became more and more outlandish, not to mention unlikely.
The Fields was full of energy and its first half beautifully evoked both a time and a place. However, in terms of narrative and tone, it was all over the place, and the same is true of Last Night on Earth. The author, who was born and grew up in Dublin and is now a journalist with the London Times, has a vivid way with dialogue and a real sense of the comic, with scenes in this new book that are exuberantly funny, but it's hard to know what to make of his main character. Jay, we learn, knows about Descartes and Lacan and other intellectual figures, yet he comes across as something of an unreconstructed muck savage, writing frequent letters to his mad mother that are both infantile in style and sexually coarse in content, as in: "We don't kiss or anything, Mammy. And there's certainly no bum-finger action" or "Well, Mammy, long story short, we had the ride of our lives that night".
Certainly if a picaresque hero is meant to be both "roguish" and "appealing", Jay fails the second of these requirements. Indeed, as the book proceeds on its overlong (380 pages) and meandering way, readers may wonder why a man, whose confidences they're being invited to share, registers as so unlikeable. And if Jay's fecklessness and his lurches into self-pity aren't endearing, neither do the other characters warrant much sympathy. Shauna's Q&A sessions with her creepy psychiatrist becoming especially tiresome.
The book moves towards Millennium night in London (the last night on earth of the title), but if there are any intended social or political resonances to the story, whether in England or Ireland, they remain elusive. "Yes, Mammy, we are all swimming in a huge and noxious stew of Irish shite", Jay writes in one of his letters home. Readers can make of that what they will.
Last Night on Earth
Little Brown, e14.99,
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350