Beware Remembrance Sunday

Tim Parks

  • Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift
    Picador, 353 pp, £18.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 330 53583 0

Perhaps the finest piece of storytelling in this novel has to do with the death of a dog. Three characters are involved: Michael Luxton, a taciturn dairy farmer; Jack, his elder son, aged 26; and Tom, his much younger son, approaching his 18th birthday. The old sick dog, named Luke, was originally just a farm dog, then for many years Jack’s close companion, but now more recently Tom’s. The events are remembered by Jack, from whose point of view, although in the third person, most of the novel is narrated.

The men are not a happy threesome. It is only five years since Michael’s wife and the boys’ mother died. Vera had been the chief source of affection in the family; it was after her death that the dog mysteriously shifted his loyalty from Jack to Tom. Since then the Devonshire farm has been devastated by mad cow disease, or rather by the government reaction to it, the Luxtons’ healthy herd having been slaughtered and incinerated in the great cull. Inevitably, the old dog’s long illness reminds the men of Vera’s death, the misery of the cull, the possible end of a great phase of their lives, bankruptcy, loss of the land.

One heavy, sullen August morning Michael drove the pick-up into the yard, fetched a spade from the lean-to and put it in the back, then went into the house, unlocked the gun cabinet between the kitchen and the stairs and carried the shotgun out to the pick-up too. Jack and Tom were both in the yard at the time, but felt from the way their father was looking and moving that they shouldn’t speak. Then Michael went into the kitchen where Luke was by now confined to his blanket in a corner – beyond even padding his way to the door – and lifted him up and carried him out and put him in the back of the pick-up along with the spade.

Michael is going to shoot the dog. He tells the boys he doesn’t want help, then changes his mind and invites Tom to come along. From that moment, everything Jack remembers is what he heard from Tom: how their father drove to the corner of a field, laid the dog down, loaded his shotgun, then offered it to Tom to do the killing; how Tom refused, or tells Jack he did, claiming that had he accepted the gun he would have shot not the dog but their father, who had taken him out of school at 16, forcing him to work on the doomed farm; and how Michael then blew the dog’s brains out from close range, dug the grave together with his young son and finally went off to wash his hands while Tom heaped earth on the animal.

Jack is excluded. Jack lost the loyalty of the dog to his brother and now he misses its death. He hasn’t even said goodbye. All he hears is the shot, but that comes through ‘clearly enough, like something hitting his own skull’. Jack suffers, but without acting, without even making an effort to act. He would never have thought of setting the family free from the dying dog in this way or indeed of freeing the animal from its agony. Unlike Tom, Jack would never contemplate hurting his father to free himself from the farm and its now inevitable failure.

This incident, which neatly captures the positions of the three men in relation to each other and the world, is somewhat overshadowed by the melodramatic frame in which Swift sets his novel. The opening pages give us an older Jack gazing from a window through heavy rain at a seaside view, a shotgun on the bed beside him. His thoughts are of the mad cow cull, 9/11, the war on terror and the whereabouts of a certain Ellie. Emotionally charged allusions to intolerable recent events warn us that Jack is probably about to shoot himself, or Ellie, or both. Swift won’t let us know whether he does so for 350 pages. In the meantime he unpacks Jack’s biography. Or rather: Jack, while waiting to kill himself, to kill Ellie, or both, recalls his past, all of it, right back to earliest childhood, in some detail and employing many clever delaying effects that keep us on the edge of our seats. Various hints in the dog scene, for example, tell us that this was not the last ugly drama from which Jack was to be excluded.

This isn’t the first time Swift has given us a man who feels unable to assert himself. Thirty years ago the main character of his first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, was a husband bossed into nullity by his oppressive wife and as a result rejected by his beloved daughter. In Ever After (1992), the protagonist, Unwin, occupies an academic post he is not fit for, provided for him by his charismatic stepfather, his feelings of inadequacy compounded by the contempt of the academic community, who exclude him. His natural father shot himself when Unwin was eight – another drama from which the main character is excluded while also being left to deal with the aftermath. In Waterland (1983), Tom Crick lives in the shadow of a complex cluster of dramatic events that leaves him with an obsession for explaining the unsatisfactory present by constant reference to the past, something that animates the idiosyncratic history lessons he gives.

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