At first Graham Swift’s LAST ORDERS seems only a light novel with a plot gimmick and some local color. It begins at a pub in Bermondsey, a section of Southwark Borough in London, when four men gather to carry out the last wishes of their drinking buddy Jack Dodds. Three of the men—Ray Johnson, Lenny Tate, and Vic Tucker—are aging contemporaries of Jack, while Vince Dodds is Jack’s adoptive son. All, as was Jack, are veterans of the military and small shopkeepers in Bermondsey. Their mission on April 2, 1990, is to transport Jack’s ashes to Margate, an aging seaside resort approximately seventy-five miles away, and toss them from the pier. Before the men start, they fortify themselves with a few pints, and the rest of the action is pretty predictable. Their day trip is interrupted by “two detours, one fight, a piss-up and a near-wetting,” but they finally get the job done.
This simple action, however, is narrated in a rather complex fashion: in brief segments and numerous flashbacks, from the first-person points of view of the above five men plus two women, the wives of Jack and Vince. The effect of the narrative method is to deepen the plot by providing context and meaning to the characters’ lives. There are postmortems, self-examinations, and reflections of the kind occasioned universally by the death of someone close. For the most part, their lives have been dull, ordinary, and disappointing. Jack wanted to be a doctor but had to settle for being a butcher, and his wife Amy’s brightest memory is the tumble in a hopfield that led to their shotgun wedding. The biggest event in the lives of the older men was service in World War II. Many of their personal relationships have soured or broken apart. Yet the narrative technique makes clear that the lives of these ordinary Bermondsey folk have been enriched by their local circle of family and friends, a circle centered around that vital institution the pub (the novel’s punning title refers to the last orders in a pub before closing time).
The narrative technique is typical of the postmodern novel, as are the literary parallels evoked by LAST ORDERS. The most obvious parallel is William Faulkner’s novel AS I LAY DYING (1930). Yet the most...
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