December Reading:

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Jack’s dead and his mates are taking his ashes off on a final journey. One of Jack’s mates is an undertaker, and was charged with cremating his remains. In the car, one of them wonders:

Whether it’s Jack in there or Jack mixed up with bits of others, the ones who were done before and the ones who were done after. So Lenny could be holding some of Jack and some of some other feller’s wife, for example. And if it is Jack, whether it’s really all of him or only what they could fit in the jar, him being a big bloke.

Friends since WWII, and with that in common, they’ve grown into men with families and responsibilities. During the trip, driven by Jack’s adopted son, they look back internally on their friendship and their failings.

…what a man does and how he lives in his head are two different things.

Anger, guilt, resentment, stress and growing old, these are all themes. The book is laced with humor, too, black and otherwise. They are a hormonal bunch, close to death, dreaming of liaisons and carnality. Then there are flashes of a beautifully-turned phrase. This is Jack’s wasting and the subsequent effects of illness on his body:

He ought to look less like himself but he doesn’t, he looks more like himself. It’s as if because his body’s packed up, everything’s going into his face and though that’s changed, though it’s all hollow with the flesh hanging on it, it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.

It’s the memory that is the point of it all:

…The dead are the dead, I’ve watched them, they’re equal. Either you think of them all or you forget them … And it doesn’t do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It’s what makes all men equal for ever and always. There’s only one sea.

Last Orders won the Booker Prize in 1996.

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