In 'Paddy Buckley' Suffering Through Four Last Days With Dark Comedy
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Paddy Buckley, the charming, roguish and thoroughly eff'd up main character of Jeremy Massey's debut novel The Last Four Days Of Paddy Buckley, can talk to dogs, control flies and leave his body at will in a kind of practiced self-hypnosis. This, oddly, is not the focus of the novel. It's a minor (but vital) character detail. But I'm mentioning it here because it's also the worst, weakest, most stompy-foot-of-magical-whateverishness part of what is otherwise a really great book.
Paddy's quasi-magical abilities (taught to him, of course, by his beloved and deceased Irish Jedi of a father) are the worst kind of literary convenience. He has them when he needs them and they're forgotten when he doesn't. And while normally I have precisely zero problems with magical realism, what I can't stomach is this kind of retrograde deus ex machina where you can almost feel the author thinking, "Hmm. There's this place where my guy is really gonna need this dog to do exactly what he wants. I know! Let's give him the power to hypnotize animals! Man, I'm a genius..."
But now that we've gotten past that rough bit of business, just forget about it completely, okay? Because nearly everything else in Massey's novel is just excellent. His Paddy is an undertaker — a man who learned the trade from his father and who works for a highly respectable funeral home in Dublin called Gallagher's. He's good at his job, respected. He has friends who work among the morgues, hospitals and old-age homes around the city. But he's also a broken man, a widower whose wife dropped dead of a brain hemorrhage while standing in line at the grocery store two years before the book even begins, leaving Paddy a terminal insomniac. He can't sleep so he works — all days, all hours. He picks up bodies in the middle of the night, comforts grieving relatives, lives on black coffee, tea and cigarettes. By his own admission, he is a man at the end of things, waiting for the something to come along that will finally end him.
And he finds it late one night when he hits a man with his car and kills him. Bad enough already, but when he gets out of the car, meaning to do the right thing and call the cops and an ambulance, he finds out that the man he's just run down is Donal Cullen, brother of Vincent Cullen, the most feared and brutal mobster in all of Dublin. Paddy panics. He runs. And, just like that, he has found the thing that's going to kill him.
Two things to keep in mind. If all of that stuff above makes The Last Four Days Of Paddy Buckley sound like a miserable slog through a black-hearted and uncaring universe of grim depression, it should. But the story doesn't read like that at all. Massey being who he is (an Irishman, and a third-generation undertaker himself) he imbues his tale with that peculiar thing Irish writers have for taking the most godawful crap in the world (death, crushing loneliness, repeated groin trauma, murders upon murders) and making them seem somehow more like cruel jokes played by capricious circumstance than anecdotal proof of the evil alive in the hearts of men. More Brendan Behan than Dennis Lehane, Massey has an eye for black humor and the details of a life fully inhabited. I know stuff about autopsies, embalming and cremation that I didn't before reading this book. And maybe a little something new about grief, too, which is impressive.
The second thing? I love the way Massey writes. For a first-time novelist, his confidence is remarkable. He's got the natural voice of a storyteller (working in the first-person helps a lot), and feels no need to show off or lard his paragraphs with hyperbole or unnecessary linguistic fireworks. His writing is by no means spare, it's just lush in a way that feels completely unforced. And every now and then, he drops a truly beautiful line or description, and coming upon it unexpectedly feels like finding money on the street. Like here, buried amid a description of coffins and the workers in the yard at Gallagher's, he lays down a one-liner to bring life to a minor character, Jack. "He was about a strawberry short of a punnet, but lived in his heart and had access to everyone else's as a result."
I have no idea what a punnet is or why Jack might be a strawberry short of one, but it doesn't even matter. Jack's a sweet kid, is what he's saying. Lovely. An innocent. And Massey has him pegged with the use of no more than two punctuation marks.
One last thing, though (and if you are hysterically allergic to even minor spoilers, maybe just stop reading now). Come the end of things — amid all the blood and gun smoke and dog-hypnotizing — Massey cheats the promises in the front of the book with a medium-happy walk-off at the end. It's not a book-killer by any means, and it could be argued that it is earned. But despite all the technical details of the undertaker's trade and its annoying faux-spiritualism, Paddy Buckley is, at its heart, a crime novel. And anyone going into this knowing only that deserves a warning that Massey flinches when the end is in sight. Personally acquainted with grief and dying throughout, he just can't seem to drop that final hammer when the moment calls for it.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor ofPhiladelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.