At first glance, Graham Swift’s Booker Award-winning Last Orders seems a rather slight novel built around a plot gimmick: “four blokes on a special delivery.” Their mission—to deliver Jack Dodds’s ashes approximately seventy-five miles from London to Margate pier for disposal—is interrupted by “two detours, one fight, a piss-up and a near-wetting.” The story sounds like good British fun, maybe material for a light made-for-television film, as the characters and setting tend to suggest. The characters are small shopkeepers from Bermondsey, a section of Southwark between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. These small shopkeepers hardly rank with the likes of Hamlet or James Bond, but they do promise some local color, particularly with their colloquial language (apparently a dressed-up relation of Cockney).
Readers get a taste of the Bermondsey patois in the novel’s complex narration. The story is told from the first- person points of view of seven characters (mainly five, since two speak only once), in numerous segments varying in length from two words to a dozen pages, with many segments flashing back over time. The segments ranging over time are titled after the character speaking, while most segments in the present are titled after points along the route between Bermondsey and Margate, a faded seaside resort. The segments in the present and titled after locations are all narrated by Ray Johnson, an insurance man nicknamed “Lucky” and the closest to a central consciousness in the novel.
The narrators are characterized more by their individual obsessions and life histories than by their separate voices, though they do seem to differ in the extent to which they utilize the Bermondsey patois. The patois seems to come out most in Lenny Tate, the fruit-and-vegetable man, and least in the women, Amy Dodds and Mandy Dodds (originally from Lancashire), with Ray Johnson somewhere around the middle. The patois is distinguished not so much by occasional bad grammar as by vocabulary, slang terms such as “berk” (girl), “nosh” (food), and “piss-up” (pub stop). In any event, Swift seems to throw just enough of these in to give a local flavor rather than interfere with the reader’s understanding. His balancing of concerns here—patois, individual voices, reader’s understanding—requires a great deal of literary virtuosity, and the degree of his success could become a hot topic for endless literary debate.
Like the language, the many place names underscore the novel’s local color angle. Some readers will enjoy this aspect of the novel, which evokes nostalgia for scenes of merry old England, such as hop-picking in Kent and pub-hopping all over. Tourists and geography buffs can savor the author’s loving descriptions of such landmarks as Smithfield Market, the Sailors’ Memorial at Chatham, and Canterbury Cathedral, and they can chart the progress of the journey with a detailed map. Yet fortunately for other readers, Last Orders is more than a novel with a plot gimmick and some local color. What it is, in fact, is a splendid example of the postmodern novel.
Like any good postmodern novel, Last Orders presents something of a minimalist surface, but its heart beats with the anxiety of influences. For this mode, Swift might be indebted to his compatriots, the playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Yet the debts do not stop there. The most obvious model for Last Orders, both in subject and form, is William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930). The punning title, referring to the last orders in a pub before closing time, recalls a similar motif in T. S. Eliot’s definitive poem The Waste Land (1922): “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.” Another influence might be James Joyce: A drinking song supplies the title for his novel Finnegan’s Wake (1939), his masterpiece Ulysses (1922) takes place in one day, and everywhere Joyce celebrates the universal in the local (for Joyce, always Dublin).
For perhaps the most important literary echo in Last Orders, one has to dig back much further, to the father of English literature. The parallels between Last Orders and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386- 1400) are muted but nevertheless striking: both begin at an inn or pub in Southwark, involve a motley group of characters identified mainly by their...
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