The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley review: undertaker with a death wish

This darkly funny debut novel from a former Dublin mortician offers a unique perspective on dying

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley
Author: Jeremy Massey
ISBN-13: 978-159463-4857
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Guideline Price: £16.99

'I have wrestled with death," Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness. "It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine." For fiction writers death can be difficult terrain, full of contradictions that defy depiction. Universal and personal, familiar and unknown, abstract and horribly real, death is the ultimate mystery that happens every day.

How does a writer connect with readers on such on a momentous topic? There is the danger of being maudlin or sentimental, ludicrous or lachrymose, of depressing readers to the extent that they’ll put down the book.

What makes Jeremy Massey’s debut so refreshing is that it takes the subject of death and turns it into an adventure that is both funny and thought-provoking. Conrad’s unexciting contest gets a makeover as the protagonist, an undertaker at a salt-of-the-earth Dublin firm, zips about the city in a hearse.

Whether it’s to leafy Dublin 4 to make arrangements for the body of a renowned artist or to a State-run care home to collect the remains that nobody else wants, Paddy Buckley follows death and picks up the pieces in the aftermath.

Death becomes him

Death, meanwhile, is also following Paddy. His parents are dead; his pregnant wife, Eva, was killed by a brain haemorrhage two years previously. Paddy’s virtual family is the band of men he works with in Gallagher’s on Uriel Street, a cast of colourful side characters who have each others’ backs. When Paddy accidentally kills the brother of a notorious criminal, Vincent Cullen, these friendships prove vital.

A mix of black comedy, adventure and hilarious love story, The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley is smart storytelling from a writer whose knowledge of the undertaking business shines through. Dublin readers may recognise the author's surname: Massey is a third-generation undertaker who worked for years at the family firm in Dublin. A screenwriter by training, he lives with his family in Australia after stints in London and Los Angeles.

A highly inappropriate sex scene in the house of a newly widowed woman jump-starts the narrative, with the plot tumbling along from one unlikely scenario to the next: body mix-ups, psychopathic pimps, blossoming romances, intimidating thugs, a dog named Dechtire that’s a cross between a fox, a German shepherd and a wolf.

As Paddy is drawn into the criminal underworld the reader roots for the likeable narrator, despite, or perhaps because of, his tendency to take crazy risks with his life. Paddy is an undertaker with a death wish, whose journey is to learn how to value life as his enemies close in.

Vincent Cullen is a formidable opponent, his steeliness brought to life by Massey’s eye for detail: “He wore a suit with an open necked shirt, and he smelled of oil, leather and menace.”

Dialogue is particularly well done, with male and female characters vividly rendered through voice. In this and in the creation of a unique world of violence and pain are echoes of Colin Barrett’s marginalised narrators.

For all the high jinks of the plot, this is a thoughtful novel whose protagonist is given to moments of profound enlightenment as he hares around a vibrant Dublin.

A glimpse of the art world allows for discussion of the work of Jung and Campbell, fairy tales and “the feminine mysteries of life and death; the masculine mysteries of wounding and growth”. Human psychology is a major focus, as “the seven veils” that people wear are lifted in the face of death.

Paddy and his fellow undertakers are amateur psychologists, carefully navigating the terrain of other people’s pain.

It’s an intriguing world, from “bring-backs” to the three stages of the gruesome embalming process and the Polikoff Special, named after a cheap suit that had to be sliced with a blade to fit a corpse.

Elsewhere we learn the funeral policy for cot deaths and that the ashes in an urn are actually bone chippings left from the spine and skull after cremation.

Other, less relevant details threaten to annoy at the beginning, as Paddy’s voice explains everything to the reader. But they ultimately succeed through their humour and the clever way the author ties seemingly innocuous events – the body mix-up, the horse running at the Curragh – together in the end.

“Deeply embedded in a fat cake of lies”, there are truths about life and death in this novel that will leave the reader wrestling with questions of mortality long after the end.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts