Books

Andrew O’Hagan
Mayflies

It’s been years now since Andrew O’Hagan established himself as an heir to Orwell in the way he can glide from fiction to nonfiction and back again with no loss of literary quality or indeed imaginative power. His latest novel, Mayflies – named for those ephemerids, large winged insects that last but a day – can sometimes look as if it has been written by someone with his nose squashed against the windowpane of life, but that degree of minute detail also gives this apparently documentary novel its air of knockdown authenticity. This is a breathtaking performance about a sunlit, gorgeous, utterly enchanting figure from late adolescence who, at some level, saves the narrator’s soul. But then the moment comes when the soaring super-friend discovers in his early 50s that he’s dying of cancer and he entrusts the narrator with the terrible duty of ferrying him over the waters: in practice taking him to Switzerland, despite the objections of his wife, and ensuring that he can die when he needs to, by euthanasia.

Assisted suicide is a difficult, not to say grim subject for a memoirist or a fiction writer, and a difficult one to sustain with anything like sufficient poise or perspective for someone who is juggling the one to invest in the other. Given the odds, it is remarkable how much O’Hagan succeeds in writing a fresh book about the joys and sorrows of chaste, intense male friendship in the face of the worst things in the world – and he does so without wallowing in sentimentalism or investing too much in the golden light of retrospection. It’s a discernible risk but O’Hagan outstares it with an overwhelming capacity to present the central character in what Lionel Trilling once referred to as the medium of the novelist’s love.

Tully, the hero, begins as a wild boy, full of a rugged and ragged charisma that comes across as a thing of beauty. He has his father’s green eyes but not his sour defeatism and he takes the world by storm. He notices the narrator with a supreme curiosity and intensity. He looks like the young Albert Finney of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and he spends a lot of his time quoting the kitchen-sink dramas of the early ’60s, which featured the great Northern classical actor in his roaring-boy days. And then in the latter end, as Tully faces (and does his best to face down) the Grim Reaper, he’s still playing with his old pack of tricks – lines from The Godfather, lists of three things never done, three best kinds of biscuits, film scenes involving smoking – all indicating the magic of an eternal youth that fades like the sun.

Mayflies is a far from flawless book but, in its portrayal of a group of people from working-class Glasgow in the early ’80s, it has a sheer realised glamour that leaves a lot of shapelier and more controlled books in the shade. The novel that won the great mate Tully’s heart was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with its green light. David Malouf’s Johnno is another book to which Mayflies might be compared. O’Hagan’s novel has an extraordinary sense of specifics and for stretches it may seem to disappear into an all but inextinguishable fog of blather and ballyhoo and boys’ talk, punning and quadrivial. On the other hand, the story of how the narrator is taken up by his high-school English teacher, and set sailing all the way to Yeats’ Byzantium, is as sharply focused and as brilliantly credible as anyone could wish. If you want an account of the efficacy of the good teacher, put this one in your anthologies.

There is a middle section where the lads go to Manchester to cavort and play up and watch The Smiths and all the rest of them: here the detail goes in and out of focus, and certain supporting characters have their weirdnesses so slavishly delineated that they cease to be quite imaginable. But that at least adds perspective to Tully, so lovingly, so romantically treasured – though Mayflies is not a gay book at all.

O’Hagan is as good as anyone ever was at capturing the sheer superiority of youth, its exotic, poetic quality, the boundlessness of its sense of wonder, and the way it can animate a life as long as it lasts. He’s also very ambitious and formidable at presenting the wonderboy as a man who expects his best friend to arrange the death he wants. Do we completely see the boy in the man? Not entirely, but O’Hagan makes a hell of an effort to allow us to, and much of what he adduces has its own enchantment. Mayflies’ narrator – the Nick to Tully’s Gatsby, a conscious identification in the book – quotes Antony and Cleopatra to his friend: “And make death proud to take us”, a line that Tully clasps like an asp.

Tully’s very loving wife loathes the idea of euthanasia and the way the men shut her out of even the discussion of it. But the novel – if that’s what it is – shows the narrator rattled by guilt and doubt and there is the vision of the wife rising to an occasion she has never sought.

You may be the kind of person who would go a long way round to avoid reading a blow-by-blow, note-by-note novel about the heartbreak of terminal illness and euthanasia, but Mayflies is a pretty extraordinary attempt to show the light shining in the darkness without pretending that the darkness, the light switch, the jump, are not terrible things, however much they are passionately willed and buoyantly sustained.

This is a memento mori of a book of very great poignancy. It shakes you to the core but is also exhilarating.

Peter Craven

Faber, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Andrew O’Hagan, Mayflies".

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Reviewer: Peter Craven