Death is everywhere in this odd novel, a coming-of-age story that dissolves into notes from a funeral business. First US publication for the Scottish Spence.
Neil McGraw is a lad in Glasgow, an only child, the son of a dour undertaker permanently embittered by his wife’s death during childbirth. Whenever the boy misbehaves, he’s locked in the basement among the coffins, so it’s not surprising he asks every body: What happens when you die? Against his will, he finds himself learning the trade. This is less gloomy than it sounds. The story moves at a good clip as the resilient Neil experiments with drinking and dating. The crisis comes when his dad finds him and his girl making out in a coffin. Soon, it’s Neil’s turn to lock his old man, dead drunk, into the basement, before hightailing it to the London of the Swinging ’60s. A friendly queer, Abe Morris, offers him a crash pad, no strings attached, where Neil finds drugs, straight sex, and Zen. The party ends when Abe, stoned, is killed in traffic and Spence abandons conventional narrative to send Neil hopscotching around the world before depositing him, 15 years later, beside the funeral pyres of the Ganges. Here, he gets very sick but is rescued by a vision in a sari: Lila, a Londoner, back home for her father’s funeral. The two fall in love and marry, lickety-split, before Neil is summoned back to Glasgow. His father has died, leaving him the business, which Neil gives a hippie twist, producing brightly painted coffins in unusual shapes, with Lila a business partner. The mood is light and buoyant, but novelistic concerns (what makes Lila tick? why do the couple decide not to have kids?) are shelved in favor of a scrapbook of original last rites, seasoned with Eastern mysticism.
There’s an appealing freshness to Spence’s writing; too bad he gives up on credible plotting and characterization.