Late in the day, O’Hagan implies, it’s easier to see the banter for what it is: a gallant attempt at processing the fact that being human is “an unstable condition that ends badly for all”. This funny and plangent book is shot through with an aching awareness that though our individual existence is a “litany of small tragedies”, these tragedies are life-sized to us. It’s difficult to think of any other novelist working now who writes about both youth and middle age with such sympathy, and without condescending to either.
As a tribute to a dear friend the book works the magic of making you, the reader, love Tully too. Towards the end, James says, “Being young is a kind of stardom with some people”, and you feel how that is true, how Tully’s light blazes to the very last page, till it seems that nothing can drown it, not the rain, not even tears.
Tully’s “downward spiral” is beguiled by extravagant last flings, from a grand Scottish wedding to a paradisiac holiday in a Sicilian hotel, and it is relieved at every turn by his gallows humour (“I’m shitting myself about shitting myself”). His final weeks are detailed meticulously enough to suggest a real-life inspiration, a cathartic urge on the author’s part. This doesn’t make it a better novel, as such, and we are entitled to feel unduly harrowed by a tragedy that unfolds so irreversibly, illustrating Jimmy’s patient loyalty as well as the hero’s indomitable spirit. It does, however, ensure that it all seems more true to life, which enhances the emotional charge and adds weight to the bleak, aphoristic wisdom that Andrew O’Hagan has to offer: “Make death proud to take us” is the motto Tully adopts, from Antony and Cleopatra. But the sentiment angers his wife, who suggests amending it: “It sounds like poetry, and reversible. Make life proud to preserve us”.
The narrator in O’Hagan’s 2006 novel Be Near Me says that the idea that you can forget the past is a “vivid illusion”. Mayflies is a beautiful and deeply moving recapitulation of that truth. The past might be a foreign country, but it’s always with us, whether we like it or not.
Above all, the intensity of friendship over the competing demands of family – in this case, of Tully’s wife – are brought under gentle scrutiny and explored with more nuance than has been shown before.
The book reads like a tribute, and doesn’t stray from love and admiration into anything darker. Depending on the reader, this is either a capitulation or a great strength.
Some of the strongest images in the book are of the characters in the background. The Scottish town is riddled with disaffected “veterans of the fight against Thatcher”, who sit in pubs staring at their flat, warm pints beside crumpled betting slips. An officious employee at the local job centre wears “his shirt tail hanging out, a limp in his conscious”. O’Hagan has written a tight, delicate and soulful novel, somewhat based on his own experience, about the power of enduring friendship and making the best of your life no matter what.
This is, then, a sentimental novel. But it’s also a novel about sentimentality itself, and the rosy glow of nostalgia: “We were soft as Tunnock’s teacakes, sentimental as sherbert,” says Jimmy. That old cliché about the splinter of ice in the writer’s heart does not apply here: O’Hagan seems, rather, to have a sliver of cheese. I mean that as a qualified compliment rather than a dismissal. He is a skilled, consciously literary writer and this is a sliver of the finest cave-aged Scottish cheddar, studded with crystals of salt.
In some ways, then, this is a book in the vein of The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited (both mentioned in passing) where a dazzled narrator pays tribute to a dazzling chum. There is, however, one difference: here the narrator’s admiration never wavers for a second. Just occasionally, the more heretical reader might wonder if Tully’s extended comic riffs and political diatribes are always so completely marvellous. But if the same thought ever crosses the mind of either Jimmy Collins or Andrew O’Hagan, they show no sign of it.
One reason Mayflies struck me so forcefully — even the title, referring to the shortness of life, packs a punch — is because it fulfils a very current desire to look back, when looking ahead is so unsettling. It reminds us that we recognise the vivid force of youth only in retrospect, when time has begun its work on us. “An explosion of life happening, and then it’s gone.” But I think this book will last beyond these feverish times: it’s not just a reminder that culture makes the worst things bearable, but a beautiful example of it in action.
Love and death are art’s two great subjects, the inescapable ones. Both are explored here in a delicate, scrupulous prose. One may wish that O’Hagan wrote more novels, enduring things unlike even the best journalism. This is only his sixth. Three have been very good: Our Fathers, Be Near Me and The Illuminations. Mayflies is in the same class. It’s that rarity: a novel about death that is life-enhancing. You can read it in a long afternoon. It will stay with you and you will want to read it again.