Last Orders by Graham Swift
I’d never read any Graham Swift before, but I picked up Last Orders in a thrift sale, not realizing that it had won a Man Booker Prize. I am trying to work my way through the Booker winners and nominees, and I’m just under half at my latest count. Swift is a contemporary British author, and I’ve heard his name mentioned many times in the academic work I referenced for my doctoral comps and beyond. I thought it was high time I gave him a read, and I am so glad I did. I will try and work my way through his canon now.
Last Orders appears to be an imitation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying at first blush, and the comparison does seem to hold up on a purely shallow understanding of the plot. Jack Dodds is a butcher who has died of stomach cancer, and he has requested that his best friends and his adopted son Vince take his ashes to the sea and scatter them at the Pier in Margate. This kickstarts the car trip to the seaside that the men undertake, with unexpected detours and confrontations. Now, this is where Swift diverges from Faulkner’s narrative: this isn’t just about family but about homosocial male friendships forged during and after World War II. This is about men being envious of each other and of their wives and children. Further, this is an examination of the British working class after the War and their attempts to build a future for future generations.
Swift’s style is crisp without being dense, and it’s also sly and evasive. You read midway through when you realize that there are secret relationships and hidden histories that his prose unpacks slowly. He’s infinitely more readable than Faulkner in this way, and I am so curious to see what the rest of his work will be like. I can see why this won the Booker, and I would recommend it to others, as well.