Filling a need and an awful lot of holes

Geoff Dyer on the slick and the dead
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The Independent Culture
The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, Cape, pounds 9.99

Much of what is interesting in this little book is reducible to the opening sentence of the first essay: "Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople." Thomas Lynch is an undertaker; more specifically an undertaker who is also - as he modestly puts it - an "internationally unknown" poet. Dying, claimed Sylvia Plath, "is an art, like everything else", but for Lynch and his father it's a business - like anything else. The father kept asking Thomas when he was going to write a book about funerals and this is the task he has undertaken. We all have some idea of what lawyers get up to but most of us have had little chance of satisfying our curiosity about "the dismal trade".

Lynch is not the first to work this particular hustle. In his Notes of an Anatomist, specifically the essay on "The Dead as a Living", F Gonzalez- Crussi wondered what effect his "death-related occupation" might have had upon his own personality. "Corpse handlers, like pathologists, morticians, or embalmers, are viewed with distrust," he notes. "An honest reply to the question of what one does for a living is bound to break the conviviality." Lynch, though, is nothing if not convivial, and has come up with his own solemn kind of conviviality. His style combines the vaguely archaic - "oftentimes", "assemblage" - with denim-ish slang: "Listen up", "go piss up a rope". The undertaker's job might oblige him to appear tunelessly grave, but that professional gravity exists in a specific world of cocaine problems (his brother's) and teenage suicides committed to a Kurt Cobain soundtrack.

Lynch's take on this world is at once nostalgic and unsentimental. Thus there seems to him, in his lifetime, "an inverse relationship between the size of the TV screen and the space we allow for the dead in our lives and landscapes". At the gas station, meanwhile, you can get "tampons and toothpaste but no one comes out to check your oil, nor can the insomniac behind the glass wall fix your brakes or change your wiper blades". Like that novelistic opening sentence these sharp observations are worthy of an on-form (it's been a while) Updike.

Lynch is less impressive when gnawing away at ethical issues like abortion, assisted suicide, capital punishment and what-not. The fact that he's in the business gives him an automatic authority, I suppose, but various versions of the same point - taking care of the dead is a way of caring for the living - emphasise that, when it comes to intimations of mortality, vocational training is of only limited value. Especially once the novelty of that tone of reverend jauntiness begins to pall.

Lynch would be a much funnier writer if he served up his puns deadpan instead of highlighting them: "Years back before the cremation market really - I can't help this one - heated up"; "embalming got to be, forgive me, de rigueur during the Civil War"; "a cemetery/golf-course combo - a Golfatorium - seems, fetched only as far as, you will excuse, a nine iron". That cemetery-golf course riff goes on for pages and becomes less funny the harder he tries to squeeze every last drop of satirical juice out of the idea.

The best joke comes when Lynch observes that "the temptation to drop names, well known in the world of letters and epicures, is nearly unavoidable. But I was better raised than that." This is from a silly piece about "my friend the poet Matthew Sweeney" in which Lynch is keen to display his inside-track knowledge of London's eateries (Wagamama is "the ultimate noodle bar", apparently).

For sheer, ear-reddening embarrassment, however, you should turn not to the essay in which Lynch and his poet pal Don Paterson go for a curry but to the piece about serendipity and contingency, otherwise known as the one about "my friend and editor, the poet Robin Robertson" (twice!) and "my friend and mentor, the poet Henry Nugent" (three times!). It's a benchmark piece: the first time a writer has undertaken the bold feat of giving his editor head in print.