Time, gentlemen, please

LAST ORDERS by Graham Swift, Picador pounds 8.99

THE punning title neatly wraps it up. Last orders are last wishes, the request by Jack Dodds, the Bermondsey butcher who secretly longed to be a doctor instead, that his four close men friends should throw his ashes, after his cremation, into the sea at Margate. So Lenny, Vince, Ray and Vic jump into their hired Mercedes for a bizarre day's outing that begins, of course, in the pub. Last orders are always being shouted at their local, The Coach and Horses, and this is a stagecoach kind of story, as the four pals jolly and chivvy each other along through life's perilous adventures. Mainly money and sex. And death, of course. The action switch-backs between the day trip to Margate and the past. Finally letting go of the ashes, scooping them into the wind, Ray and his friends free themselves from old resentments and grudges, settle old scores.

The novel unpacks its complex sub-plots slowly, as the narrative is handed on from character to character. You have to listen hard to work out who's related to whom. Easy to get it wrong, this game of Chinese whispers, this babble of chatter in the bar where the men line up their pints and engage in ritual banter, always worried about losing face, afraid of giving too much away. Psychic wrestling goes on non-stop, couched as gossip and wisecracks, the jerky see-saw of monosyllabic conversation.

The novel is wholly created by voices, by the dramatic tensions between monologue and dialogue, between jokey patter and the unspeakable: longings, grief, shame, lust. The voices weave together their laments for lost chances and lost loves, and it's the reader, the only one who can hear all that the protagonists can't say, who composes the pattern, the denouement. It's Ray, the little man who bets on the horses, who stands in for the teller of the tale. There's always one quiet one in the group of drinkers. It's Ray who listens and who learns, who finally gambles everything, who gets the money and the girl. A fairy-tale ending with a hint of oedipal fantasy: the father-figure dies, handing on his woman to the younger man.

Amy, the woman in question, is drawn with the utmost sympathy, but doesn't totally convince. Her inner life, boldly suggested, remains sketchy. The other women are mainly doodles in the margin of the men's story, which is fair enough, for these are old-fashioned guys who don't sit around all day blethering to wives. Ray beautifully pictures his version of London as a romantic, nostalgia-inducing landscape of masculine autonomy and freedom, all evoked through the magical power of naming: "I'd slip out early and get the 63 as usual but get off two stops later and walk up from Farringdon Road, up Charterhouse Street, in the half light. Breakfast at Smithfield. We'd go to that caff in Long Lane or to one of those pubs that serves beer and nosh at half past seven in the morning. There was Ted White from Peckham and Joe Malone from Rotherhithe and Jimmy Phelps from Camberwell."

It's a woman, though, who gives a powerful description of Smithfield, where Jack Dodds has worked all his life, because she sees it as an outsider: "tall buildings, each of them lit up like a fairground, each of them full of meat and men and din, as if the men were shouting at the meat and the meat was shouting back. And outside it was still dark, extra dark because of the brightness inside, the air full of wet murk. There were lorries throbbing and reversing, the drizzle like sparks in the lights, and doors being swung open and puddles shining red and white, and more meat, on barrows, on shoulders, being lugged into the brightness, the men doing the lugging all streaked and smeared with blood, their faces red and glistening as the loads they were carrying."

The point is, of course, that the novel's group of heroes add up to more than beef and grief, port and talk. Finally they get it out: they loved Jack. Each one steps out of the Greek chorus into the spotlight, then back into the darkness. The dying butcher takes his turn, offers a small elegy on wasted meat, wasted lives, decay. This is a novel that will make a great film. A real weepie, like in the 1940s.

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