Tag Archives: Comic fiction

Trading Futures by Jim Powell: The unravelling of a betting man

Cover imageWhen I first picked up Jim Powell’s new novel I was looking for a bit of light relief after finishing Olivia Laing’s excellent but often harrowing The Lonely City. I thought it might be a much slimmed down version of John Lanchester’s Capital or Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, a post-financial crash novel, which to some extent it is but it’s also about what can happen to us when our lives turn out to be far from what we’d hoped.

Sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. He’ll make the phone call if five white cars pass him. Matthew is a chronic gambler, albeit an apparently respectable one, trading futures in the City up until a few months ago when he was downsized ahead of the looming global financial meltdown. He even got the job as the result of a backfiring bet with his fellow students way back in the ’60s, all of them intent on changing the world. Judy, his wife of many years, loves their settled comfortable life but Matthew loathes it. He’s now in the grips of an existential crisis, pretending to Judy that he still has a job, turning up to sit in the office which his old boss has tolerantly allowed him to occupy and drinking far too much. On an errand for his erstwhile employers, Matthew spots an attractive blonde roughly his own age, convincing himself it’s Anna with whom he fell in love one idyllic summer afternoon in 1967. When the two of them click over a drink, Matthew begins to entertain all sorts of ideas.

Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. He’s that uncomfortable mixture of self-loathing and arrogance, dismissing his wife’s careful construction of their comfortable life as dull and prosaic while ruing his own betrayal of his baby boomer ideals. It’s often very funny – there’s a particularly amusing scene with a lunch guest in which Matthew finds himself ‘defending crooked capitalist practices on behalf of the Labour party, while the brave Captain Ahab spoke for the downtrodden masses on behalf of the Tories’. In amongst all this, Matthew comes out with some observations it’s hard to argue with particularly on the subject of the City’s shenanigans. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one. There are a few unlikely coincidences but it’s good enough to suspend your disbelief. An enjoyable read then – if not quite the antidote to The Lonely City I was looking for – and who can resist a novel which contains the line ‘I think I mostly learn about reality from works of fiction’.

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley: A nice slice of Irish black comedy

Cover imageThis one’s a little outside my usual literary purview. It’s a smart little black comedy all wrapped up in a thriller with a bit of a love story thrown in. The title puts you in the picture: Paddy Buckley is an undertaker who has landed himself in deep trouble with Dublin’s chief gangster and is facing his imminent demise. Jeremy Massey’s novel tells the story of what may well be the last four days of Paddy’s life and how an upright citizen whose mid-October Monday starts with a routine callout came to be in this predicament. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief at times but if you can do that you’re in for a lot of fun.

Paddy Buckley works for Dublin’s most respected funeral director as did his much-loved father before him. Paddy’s done his time in the embalming room and now calls on the bereaved, summoning all the tact and delicacy necessary to help them make arrangements for their loved ones’ funerals. He’s no stranger to loss himself. Eva, his heavily pregnant wife, collapsed and died two years ago leaving Paddy bereft and insomniac, unable to get over her death. On the Monday morning in question he’s been called to the home of a well-known artist. Things taking a surprising turn, then an even more surprising one, leaving Paddy somewhat discombobulated, concerned that his spotless reputation may be besmirched. His night is disturbed by a call to a nursing home to pick up a body. On the way home, exhausted and preoccupied, Paddy knocks down a man, killing him instantly.  Grim enough, you might think, but worse is to come. The victim’s wallet, stuffed with 20,000 euros, reveals that this is Donal Cullen, beloved brother of Dublin’s most feared gangster. What follows is Paddy’s attempt to evade Vincent’s ire, entailing nerves of steel, out-of-body experiences, a gorgeous dog and a great deal of quick thinking.

Massey is a third-generation undertaker who clearly knows a great deal about the business, weaving all sorts of arcane bits and pieces through his entertaining caper including a graphic description of embalming. The Undertaker’s Daughter popped into my head several times. Paddy is a thoroughly engaging character, an honourable man caught out by circumstances which lead him into a mire of duplicity, more than capable of thinking on his feet. It’s a very funny novel which keeps you hoping that despite his many prophecies of the dire fate that awaits him, Paddy will somehow pull through. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you the ending but I will say that Massey neatly ties together all those bits and bobs of funeral lore, including the embalming. Great fun, and just the thing when you’re faced with a constant stream of interruptions as I was when I read it. Excellent film material, too.