Following 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.
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!).