Book Review: “Last Night on Earth” by Kevin Maher

IMG_4029Following on from his 2013 debut novel The Fields, Last Night on Earth is the second novel of Irish journalist, columnist and novelist Kevin Maher. Sadly I hadn’t read The Fields before reading this book, but I had flicked through a number of reviews online to try to get a sense of Maher’s writing; I discovered that Maher had been praised for his evocation of an endearing, witty narrator in his debut, and I can confidently say that this was the highlight of Last Night on Earth. It is an absurdly funny, touching and nuanced narrative which opens bizarrely, and fittingly for the novel such as it is, from the perspective of a garrulous baby in the midst of being born. However the story quickly moves to focus on that child’s father, Jay, an Irishman finding his course of life in the English capital. After doting on his beloved mother for many years in an attempt to delay the deterioration of the effects of her Alzheimer’s disease, Jay decides to set his own life in motion by moving to London where he takes gigs as a labourer until he gets a lucky break to work on a documentary courtesy of a labourer friend of his, Darren. A love of films, or “fillums” as Jay would have it in his Gaellicized narrative voice, is one of a few constants that courses through this topsy-turvy and endlessly entertaining novel, and one which also leads him on the path to meet his future wife, Shauna.

 “… and we together push like crazy, from inside and out, both beating blood together, her thumpety-thump and my wuchoo-wuchoo-wuchoo, pushing my greasy noggin to the edge of the world and through a skin stretch that’s nothing less than rippy, teary, burny red and makes Momma Shauna go Shheeeeeshhh through her teeth…” (p.3)

Instead of following a chronological curve, the book flitters episodically through time and jolts from third- to first-person narrator to give a jigsaw-like effect whereby the full picture of the story is unveiled piece by piece. So we veer from Jay’s early episodes in London, hitching a ride to work with other “Micks” and finding himself in the big smoke, before fast-forwarding to his later situation as a thirty-something-year-old separated parent. After becoming smitten with American colleague Shauna over a sexy, fun, carefree relationship, the burdens of adulthood and parenthood tumble down somewhat dramatically on the young couple following the birth of their daughter, Bonnie, when complications in the birth result in their daughter potentially suffering from brain damage. This places strain on their own relationship which becomes increasingly stale before culminating in Shauna finding solace in her opportunist and rather creepy psychologist Dr.Ghert.

Following a difficult separation and the appearance of an old Irish friend, ominously called The Clappers, things take a stern downward turn for Jay. While his arc in the media world is on the ascendency with being granted the opportunity to direct his own documentary, the money and lifestyle this seems to bring sees Jay spiral into a world introducing him to drugs, near-drowning, assault and a belief that the dawn of the millennium will bring with it the apocalypse. The final sections of the novel artfully imitate Jay’s state of mind, and are chaotic, fragmented and, at times, nonsensical, with bearings on time and space being awry at best. By the time the countdown for the millennium is here we supposedly find Jay lingering dangerously on the fringes of a party including royalty and the Prime Minister:

“I lift the trapdoor, barely an inch from the ground, and scan the arena. ‘Sixteen!’ Feckin Blair’s there. And Cherie. The Queen. All the New Labour heavies. Lenny Henry and Mick Hucknell too! Boy, are they in for a surprise! Holding back the years, me arse!” (p.365)

Maher’s craftsmanship in Last Night on Earth lies primarily in his ability to evoke character through narrative voice and secondly in the structure and style of the book. Jay is a distinctively portrayed character, full of life, bearing that quintessential Irish wit, topped off with an authentic amount of cursing. We acquire a fuller picture of his character through the series of epistolary chapters which comprise imaginary letters addressed to his mother in which he reveals all about his experiences in London. It is these letters that create a bond of empathy between the reader and Jay as a character, that keep us rooting for him, and that expose his inner vulnerabilities and fears but also his relentless energy and determination to succeed as a father to little Bonnie. Religion, and the centrality or importance of religion to Irish society is also a major theme that I felt was dealt with quite sardonically by Maher. The leaders of the Catholic church are quite content to pursue Jay’s mother’s outlandish and, we assume, Alzheimer-inducted claims that he is the second coming of Christ in order to convert more locals to the religion, pointing towards the corruption and sad desperation of that religion. This is something that Maher supposedly deals with in his debut novel according to reviews I’ve read, and it is probably one of if not the only controversial or politicized theme in the novel.

IMG_4033

Overall I felt Last Night on Earth to be a light-hearted, entertaining and humane tale of fatherhood and the fine line that all parents tread between unabounding love for their child and the constant fear of failure. I look forward to discovering his debut novel and checking out his future work. Have you read The Fields? If so I’d definitely be interested to hear your thoughts on that book and how it compares to Last Night on Earth (if you have read it!).

Thanks to Abacus Books and Poppy Stimpson for my review copy.

An Introduction to Ernest Hemingway: “The Collected Stories”

IMG_4002

Until last year I hadn’t read a word of Hemingway’s work. I first encountered his writing in a creative writing tutorial while studying at university when my peers and I were asked to draw our attention to Hemingway’s incredible economy and evocation of place in one of his best known short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. Since then I have been keen to explore Hemingway’s oeuvre, and so last month I treated myself to this handsome Everyman’s Library edition of Hemingway’s Collected Stories. A thick tome comprising almost 800 dense pages of crafted prose, it is a collection that gives a good taste for the mechanisms, themes and concerns of Hemingway as a writer, yet at the same time I would feel reluctant recommending diving into such a large collection, especially if you are a novice vis-à-vis Hemingway, as I was. With this in mind, I have chosen ten short stories from The Collected Stories that have imprinted themselves on my imagination which give an accurate sketch of what Hemingway is all about. I have included hyperlinks to the stories for you to read them as you wish, in the hope that these stories will pique your interest and make you want to read more of his work.

tumblr_njuau20lKS1qmmlfco1_500

1) “Indian Camp” (1924)

Published in 1924, “Indian Camp” was one of Hemingway’s earliest published short stories. It forms part of what became known as the Nick Adams Stories, in reference to the protagonist and fictional pseudonym who relays Hemingway’s own experiences in Europe during the First World War, the twenties and thirties.

This rather gruesome tale recounts Nick’s experience working as an intern alongside his father who is forced to deliver the baby of an Indian woman who has spent two days in labour. The story grapples with a large number of themes over a mere five pages, underlining the incredible economy and density that are the trademarks of Hemingway’s prose.

Read the story here.

2) “Soldier’s Home” (1925)

“Soldier’s Home” follows the story of Krebs, a young war veteran returning from WWI and his struggles to re-assimilate himself into society. He returns later than some of his compatriots and so people around him become at ease and somewhat bored of the hideous tales of war that have inevitably left an indelible imprint of the mind of the young man. The story deals with the repercussions that the horrors of war have on people trying to return to the ‘norm’ of everyday life.

Read the story here.

3) “Cat in the Rain” (1925)

On the face of it, “Cat in the Rain” is a simple, quaint yet rather charming tale of a couple spending an evening in a hotel room. The lady spots a cat outside hiding from the rain under a table and decides to go down and rescue it. Almost comedic in tone and beautifully written, the story can be enjoyed just for what it is; yet, typical of Hemingway, there are much deeper and darker themes and concerns which course underneath the explicit prose and make this a story that deserves to be read and re-read.

Read the story here.

4) “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927)

Set on a Spanish roadside, “Hills Like White Elephants” is told almost entirely in dialogue with just two characters. After ordering a couple of beers, the story pivots on an unspecified “operation” that the man wants the woman to have and the effects this operation would have on their relationship. The dialogue here was a revelation for me: poised, suggestive and highly thought-provoking. Hemingway is able to evoke each characters’ thoughts without needing to rely on a third-person narrator, using just exquisitely dense and crafted speech.

Read the story here.

5) “Ten Indians” (1927)

It is the 4th July and Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams returns home from a day on the road with his friend Joe Garner to the news that his girlfriend has been spotted dating another guy. Yet in tune with the significance of that date, rather than wallow in self-pity Nick is drawn to the beauty and freedom of the natural world: “he heard the wind in the hemlock trees outside the cottage and the waves of the lake coming in on the shore… and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken”. This is a rousing tale for the broken hearted.

Read the story here.

6) “Wine of Wyoming” (1930)

A story set in the era of American prohibition, “Wine of Wyoming” features a French immigrant couple who enjoy selling their own homebrewed beer and wine to people who enjoy “a good drink in good company”. Madame and Monsieur Fontan (interestingly not too far away from the name of French fabulist De La Fontaine) provide an outsider’s scrutinising look at American society and Hemingway seems to use cultural differences to satirise particular aspects of American life.

Read the story here.

7) “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933)

A gorgeous, engaging tale of insomnia and loneliness demonstrating the sheer craftsmanship of Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a simple tale about a deaf old man who enjoys spending his evenings watching the night draw in with a sip of brandy in his local café, the “Clean, Well-Lighted Place” of the title. The two waiters working at the café gossip about the man, revealing that he has recently tried to commit suicide. When wondering how the old man had arrived at such a point, the younger wait is stumped as “he has plenty of money”. Often lauded as one of Hemingway’s finest short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a quintessential example of Hemingway’s writing style, known as the Iceberg Theory, which focuses on the surface elements of a story while allowing larger themes to stream through his prose implicitly.

Read the story here.

8) “The Capital of the World” (1936)

“The Capital of the World” uses a more ‘complex’ narrative structure than typically found in Hemingway’s short stories. It features far more characters than are usually present in a short story, yet Hemingway demonstrates an ability to evoke individual character over a short space with aplomb. In short, the story is set in a Madrid restaurant and hotel where a young waiter with a dream to become a renowned matador currently resides. The hotel is mainly frequented by former second-rate bullfighters who, for various reasons, are unable to return to the bullring. The narratives and myths surrounding these former matadors only incite the young waiter’s aspirations, yet the story culminates in a tragic denouement which points towards the dark realities of bullfighting.

Read the story here.

9) “Old Man at the Bridge” (1938)

“Old Man at the Bridge” is a melancholic tale of the common down-and-out man, the archetypal figure who crops up in this collection again and again in stories such as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. In this story the narrator comes across “An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road” during the Spanish Civil War and depicts the plights of the common man in the face of war. The way Hemingway draws out and contemplates the story of the fate of the ordinary man reminded me of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) in which the two young poets attempted to move the pendulum of literature away from grand epic tales to stories about people and characters of the quotidian.

Read the story here.

10) “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936)

A tale about a wealthy American couple going on safari with a more experienced American, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” evidences Hemingway’s humour and biting acerbic tone. This is a story that yet again shows off Hemingway’s masterful use of dialogue, and one which also has many filmic qualities.

Read the story here.

IMG_4027

Have I missed out a notable short story of Hemingway’s? What is your favourite? And with this being my first exploration into his work, where should I go from here? Your thoughts are always appreciated in the comments box below. Thank you for reading.

My handsome Everyman’s Library edition of Hemingway’s short stories can be found here.