I didn't expect to like this book so much. Somehow it became linked in my mind with The Old Devils, which I really didn't enjoy. Maybe it was the barroom association? Anyway, I approached my reading as though it was a flu shot: with a robust sense of taking my medicine and getting it over with. (Check off another Booker Prize winner for me!)
The story is a conglomerate of the voices and perspectives of a group of men who have been friends and neighbors for many years, through coming of age in World War II, returning to civilian lives, and establishing careers and families. While each has had his own story--Lenny the produce vendor, Vic the funeral director, Ray the insurance man and proverbially lucky horseplayer--their lives have been lived collectively, too. Now they embark on a road trip to perform a task that inaugurates a new phase in their shared lives: scattering the ashes of Jack the butcher, the first of their group to die. They are joined by Jack's adopted son Vince, who adds plenty of resentment to the emotional mix.
Each small chapter of this book is told by a different member of the group, as they progress on their journey to the sea. A few other female relatives and Jack's wife Amy also chime in at times, although they are not along for the ride. Amy has declined to participate in the scattering (and technically Jack's "last orders" didn't say who should do the scattering), but as the story unfolds, Amy's perspective becomes especially important, so it's appropriate that she also have her say.
Along the journey, amid stops at the pub ("last orders" also means "last call"), gallows humor, unexpected detours, and even a fistfight, lots of secrets are revealed. The details of unusual family ties, adultery, marital conflicts, money troubles, coincidences, and true motivations all come out as the characters alternate interior monologues and conversations with each other. They are at times evasive, at times filled with denial, and at times groping toward honesty and insight. Although it's apparent to the reader that they have muddled their lives, they don't seem to grasp that themselves. They just muddle on.
The characters' voices did not seem entirely distinct to me, but their perspectives always were. The narrative's time frames flow from the present journey to past events and back again, in anything but chronological order. Only the reader can fully see how the pieces all fit together. It's a shifting mosaic, but somehow it seems more elegant than choppy. Generally I dislike this kind of piecemeal technique, but here, it works. By the end, the love and friendship between these flawed men and their dedication to Jack's final request are surprisingly moving. Maybe minor, maybe tarnished, but that's all they've got.
Excerpt (Ray remembers visiting Jack in the hospital):
He said, "So now I know, Raysy."
It was a full day and a half after the operation that wasn't no operation, so he wasn't groggy and slow and confused any more. Sharp and clear as I've ever seen him, sitting up there in that little white smock thing, with the extra tubes going in, some round the back now. It seemed like every day they rigged up another tube. . . .
But he was sitting up, straight and steady. I thought, It's like he's having his portrait done, his last portrait, no flattering, no prettying, and no one knows how long it will take. Two weeks, three. Nothing to do but sit still and be who you are.