Thursday, April 10, 2008

Last Bird Singing

To say that cuckolded Tommy Oliver is disenchanted with life is something of an understatement. So sick is he of his loveless marriage that, whilst listening to Nat King Cole croon Unforgettable, he burns down his own house. This is more than just a melodramatic gesture - it is symbolic. As a brickie he is destroying everything that he has built in life. It marks the moment when he finally loses faith in love.

The Cardiff of Allan Bush's Last Bird Singing is unapologetically old school. Working-class; masculine to the point of misogyny; alcohol-soaked. References to new technology are non-existent. The territories mapped out are traditional: Splott, Adamsdown, Grangetown. This is a world of greasy spoons, backstreet boozers and lonely men ekeing out unromantic existences in cheap bedsitting rooms.

Armed with an impressive knowledge of the building trade Bush is able to summon up the 'real' with ease. But this novel is as much about interior landscapes as the bricks and mortar of city streets. Troubling memories and ominous dreams make up much of the first-person narrative. Tommy's reality is further coloured by his obsession with the fantasy/romantic world of cinema. Tab Hunter, Dean Martin, Troy Donahue and numerous old-time film stars are referenced. "We are a family ruined by bad ideas from rotten films," he says, acknowledging the negative influence of pop culture on his life.

Although criminal acts do occur during Last Bird Singing the novel never wholly strays into the realms of crime fiction. Rather, it is a study of the existential horrors of family life. "Stand and consider the awful and alien intimacies that befall the lives of families," Tommy opines. And then later like a lowlife Leonard Cohen: "loving was always the sure way to misery."

The downbeat mood continues when the narration switches from Tommy to son Polly. Doomed, it seems, to repeat the mistakes of his parents Polly (a mother's boy) has a sexual preference for married women. In pursuit of his predilections he both repeats the sexual infidelities of his own mother and echoes the cuckolding of his father. The myth of Oedipus certainly casts a dark shadow over the unhappy Oliver family.

Whilst often being an uncomfortable read Last Bird Singing remains gripping throughout. A dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of a book it constantly reminds us that beneath the brash facade of nouveau-Cardiff a far more disturbing place exists - the ordinary, everyday world of failed love and broken dreams. Or, as Dean Martin might have crooned: sexual betrayal, suffering, suicide and murder... that's amore.

*Last Bird Singing by Allan Bush, published by Seren, is on sale now.