Barely reviewed by those who select books for review, “Mayflies”, by “London Review of Books” writer/editor Andrew O’Hagan, is one of the year’s best novels. Perhaps it’s being overlooked because it deals with friendships between white heterosexual men, although, as always, these men of working class origin tend to be ignored by the cognoscenti of the contemporary literary (and/or art) world, as many have claimed they’ve been overlooked in the worlds of politics and economics.
The boy/men in question are about seventeen years old, one year away from high school graduation in Glasgow, Scotland, a city that was virtually abandoned after The Industrial Revolution; we’re now , in the novel, in the era of Thatcher, so most of these boys’ fathers have become unemployed as her government attempted to decimate the working classes in The United Kingdom. About eight or so of them have bonded over films and the contemporary music of their era–they’re smart , and their friendships are full of great puns, frequent quotations from films, lists of “bests” and “worsts” in culture, and the like; they are not suffering from toxic masculinity; in their frequent time together, they almost never talk about either women or sex, a nice touch on the author’s part.
Within the group, two friends, Jimmy “(Noodles”) and Tully are the closest of friends. Jimmy’s parents have literally abandoned him as he faces his last year in high school (Jimmy says he’s divorced his parents), and Tully, the best liked and most sympathetic of the characters, absorbs him into his household; Tully’s wonderful mother Barbara becomes a kind of surrogate mother in the deal. The first half of the novel describes the bonding between and amongst the boys, leading to a hugely exciting weekend in Manchester, England, to attend a series of rock concerts, an event which will bond these guys for life. O’Hagan, in his wisdom, does not overdwell on the details of the concerts, focusing mainly on the guys’ interactions with each other.
Jimmy persuades Tully to look beyond his doomed future of working class life, or what might be left of it, and both of them become teachers and remain good friends; at 51 years of age, Jimmy gets a phone call from Tully, who has just learned that he’s dying of colon cancer. This second half of the novel, wherein Jimmy helps Tully to get to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, is magnificent, building on the first part of the novel’s bonding amongst these now men. During this time, Jimmy’s married and has a little summer cottage on, I think, the West Coast of Scotland, and Tully will spend increasing amounts of time with his old friend there. Trying to figure out how to live until Tully dies, Tully marries Anna in a glorious wedding. The two couples now spend as much time together as is humanly possible, given they all have jobs and the like.
The tensions between Anna, Tully’s wife, and Jimmy, are brilliantly portrayed, giving us tremendous insights into the differences between male/male friendship and male/female marriage/friendship (in today’s literary world, we are much more likely to read about bonded female friendships, to much good effect). When the four actually leave for Switzerland together for the final day of Tully’s life, after a grand meal in a great restaurant (Tully’s heavily medicated), the four spend this last day/meal together with their usual banter and fun–this writing is magnificent–and the day of Tully’s death is certainly consistent with his character as well as the others’.
Wanting to control his death and succeeding in doing so is rough territory, rarely covered in fiction (Sigrid Nunez did this last year in “What Are You Going Through”, about two women doing the exact same thing, in one of 2020’s best novels). O’Hagan writes very carefully, without excess sentiment, about a topic I believe is going to be a huge one for boomers in the near future. O’Hagan’s writing, too, is utterly superb; just a few writers are able to write about character with just a few key details/descriptions (Jhumpa Lahiri; Patti Smith, Rachel Cusk, amongst them). O’Hagan’s style is nearly minimalist, but entirely lyrical and/or poetic; his language is incredibly beautiful and the book’s well worth reading just for the writing itself. And the book’s a real weeper, so be prepared to be deeply moved by this astute and sophisticated novel, beautiful in its rarity as well as its slimness and superb plot and character study.