Last Night on Earth by Kevin Maher (Little Brown)
In his debut novel The Fields, Kevin Maher introduced us to Ireland of the 1970s, and 13-year-old Jim Finnegan. It’s a classic first novel, an Irish Bildungsroman as Jim – the baby in a family of older girls – grapples with first love and his father’s cancer, not to mention predatory priests. Last Night on Earth, Maher’s second novel, is not a sequel but moves chronologically forward, and covers some of the same ground thematically. Jay, an idealistic 20-something from the Roscommon, heads for London in the mid-1990s. The reason for his departure is panicked and murky, and like many before him, he finds work on building sites. Except Jay isn’t interested in backbreaking labour, and his ladder climbing involves reading and social betterment, rather than struggling up an actual ladder with a hod of bricks.
Blessed with determination, Irish charm and chutzpah, Jay catches a further aspirational break when a TV crew show up to make a programme about building site life. Through a pal, ‘Dublin Darren’, and before you can say ‘plot swerve’, Jay lands a plum job working in television making a documentary. There are dalliances with women, and then there’s Shauna, who he falls in love with and makes pregnant.
The story is told in time shifts, from different character’s point of view, and opens memorably, with the difficult birth of Jay and Shauna’s first child. On page one, in 1996, Bonnie tumbles chaotically into the world, and Maher’s prose reflects this. It has a frantic, pre-uterine echo of Eimear McBride’s ‘Girl’ (“birthy splatlets and baby driplets”) but quickly gives way to Jay’s voice. And what a voice – the entire book pivots around him, and from the moment he opens his mouth, Jay is a 360-degree whirling dervish of a character. Kinetic, relentlessly verbal and hard to dislike, Maher has created a memorable rogue. A post-Ginger Man chancer with the best of intentions, mired by prohibitive flaws and dodgy predilections. His Irishness is a badge of pride, and his native language – here, phonetically on the page – seeps into the story. He woos Shauna with comic translations of “bookill dawna”… and she especially likes the Gaelic word for word, which is ‘fuckill’, which is, she says, just brilliant.”
The struggling emigrant is a familiar fixture in the Irish novel, but Maher’s creation is no trope. Jay is flawed, burdened by his failings, but believes that retribution lies in fatherhood to Bonnie, who has developmental issues. He chatters in our collective ear all the way through the narrative but Maher also uses an epistolary form to provide insight. Letters written home to his mother – a stagey, obvious device – still provide some of the funniest moments of the book. They are signed “your right hand man”, a reference to the fact that his mother, who lives in a fug of dementia back in Ireland, believes Jay to be the Son of God. There are explorations of what if means to be Irish in London, especially with the on/off IRA ceasefires of the mid 1990s. Jay craves progressiveness, but is happy to be quizzed on his knowledge of Catholic feast days. He plays games with the Irish language: translating swearwords, using it during sex, even telling a highly irreverent story about Yeats, who “had an operation to insert monkey balls into his stomach to make him more attractive to younger wans”.
The book eventually shifts back to Ireland, thanks to the wildcard entry of a tough, “well-built” female friend called The Clappers. Maher is revealing and heartfelt on the mother-son (and father-child) relationship. It also focuses on the urge to amend the past and longing for self-reinvention, via any means necessary, from geography to drugs. There are stories within stories, of Black and Tans and ghosts, of Immaculate Conceptions and Mexico’s Santa Muerta (‘Saint Death’).
Eventually we learn the reason for Jay’s panicked departure from Ireland, which is tenuously reconnected to the end of the story. Here the book unravels a little due to a plot-stretching fracas involving the Millennium Dome and New Year’s Eve. Shauna, Jay’s ex-girlfriend is given too much space in the story (presented as talking sessions with her manipulative therapist, Dr. Ghert). Although we gain insight into Jay’s mind and motivations from her, it reluctantly moves the reader away from Jay, when he is the drum-beating heart of the book. It thrums with a unique energy and gambols along (at a possibly amphetamine-induced pace). The dialogue is slickly moulded, making music of expletives and colloquialisms and may owe a debt to the fact that Maher is also a film critic. Last Night on Earth is a very funny picaresque, unafraid of its emotional core – and surely Jay deserves a place on the big screen?
Last Night on Earth by Kevin Maher is published by Little, Brown.
This review originally appeared in The Irish Times on April 11th, 2015.