Every now and again, a book comes along that surprises the reader with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from the highly respected writer, editor and critic Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life.
Central to the novel is the relationship between two men – Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The book is neatly divided into two sections: the first set in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age.
At eighteen, Jimmy is being encouraged by his English teacher – the sharp-eyed Mrs O’Connor – to continue his education, mainly as a route out of his working-class Ayrshire background. Tully, however, is going down a different path in life, working as a machinist but living mainly for the evenings and weekends. There is more than a touch of Albert Finney about Tully – not just in appearance but in personality too.
Irvine New Town, east of eternity. Tully was twenty years old and a lathe turner. He impersonated Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by taunting his boss all week and drinking pints of Black and Tan all weekend. He looked like Albert Finney, all slicked-up hair, but in Tully’s case spiked with soap. At that time, he had the kind of looks that appeal to all the sexes and all ages, and his natural effrontery opened people up. (p. 4)
Tully and Jimmy hang out with a gang of lads – Tibbs, Limbo, Hogg and Dr Clogs – whose defining characteristics range from the techy one to the political one. Their lives are defined by music, football, and various cultural references, their conversations peppered with lists of ‘top threes’: the three best goals scored by a Scottish player or the top three films starring Robert de Niro. I’m sure you get the drift.
O’Hagan excels in capturing the sheer adrenaline rush of being young, a time when your whole life is in front of you, and the possibilities ahead appear endless. The highlight of the summer is a weekend in Manchester, a trip centred on an indie music festival at the city’s G-Mex centre. The boys are high on the anticipation of the event, affording it the feel of a momentous occasion – a kind of coming-of-age or the last flush of youth, something that O’Hagan neatly portrays in Jimmy’s response to this seemingly magical city.
We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things. (p. 53)
I just paused for a second, standing there, and realised I was ‘in it’, part of the city right then, and part of the history we were here to celebrate. (p. 58)
It’s a formative experience for Tully too, one that sets him on a different life path due to Jimmy’s carefully directed input. While Tully might be a lathe turner at the moment, higher education remains a viable option for the future, potentially opening up an escape from his humble beginnings. (As an aside, both boys have somewhat distant relationships with their fathers, a factor that seems crucial in shaping their personalities.)
The concert, when it comes, is like a drug – a high epitomised by the appearance of The Smiths, complete with Morrisey’s magnetic presence and swagger.
The singer wafted into view and sold his drowsy reticence like a drug. The band was at its height, romantic and wronged and fierce and sublime, with haircuts like agendas. Morrissey came brandishing a license, a whole manner of permission, as if a new kind of belonging could be made from feeling left out, like nobody knew you as he did. (p. 120)
There is a hint of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in the mood and feel of this first section, particularly given the laddish banter amongst the group. And yet, that’s far from being the complete picture here; there’s a softer side to the novel’s opening too, a real tenderness in the portrayal of these boys, who come across as hugely likeable and endearing. Despite all the surface bravado and brio on display, especially from Tully, O’Hagan never lets us forget how vulnerable these young men might be, both now and in the future.
In part two, we fast-forward thirty years to the autumn of 2017 and a whole different phase of life for the two central protagonists who remain closely connected – still firm friends, still throwing ‘top threes’ at one another – in spite of their physical distance. At forty-nine, Jimmy is an established writer, living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre. Having taken Jimmy’s advice and worked his way through night school, Tully is now a teacher, Head of English no less, in a school in Glasgow’s East End.
One day, Jimmy receives a call from Tully, the sort of phone call we all dread. There’s a crisis on the horizon for Tully, the kind of crunch point that will not disappear. He needs Jimmy’s help, both emotionally and practically, a request that only the closest of friends can ever make. Naturally, given their history, Jimmy agrees, ultimately finding himself caught between two conflicting forces – on the one hand, his loyalty to lifelong buddy, Tully; and on the other, his concern for Tully’s partner, Anna, who has her own somewhat different vision of the future ahead.
The tonal register of this second half is very different to the first – more sobering and reflective in mood, qualities that tend to develop naturally as we age. Nevertheless, Tully remains fiercely upbeat in the face of intense adversity, interspersing the serious stuff of life with hilarious anecdotes and banter.
Alongside these perceptive insights into Tully’s psyche, O’Hagan is particularly strong on the emotional impact of the dilemma on Jimmy. There is an overriding sense of loyalty here, a testament to the strength of a lifelong friendship that feels rock solid to the core – and yet Jimmy is also acutely alert to the bigger picture and its attendant moral considerations while Tully prefers to remain blinkered.
Yet it became obvious, as the weeks passed, that his [Tully’s] decisions were having an impact way beyond himself. As an adult, he had a kind of complacency when it came to the opinions of others; he didn’t quite believe the world beyond himself could halt his ideas. (p. 154)
As a consequence, Jimmy attempts to mediate between Tully and his immediate family, throwing himself into activities in the hope of catalysing some form of resolution. The ending, when it comes, feels both heartbreaking and strangely triumphant, a hugely affecting combination that O’Hagan manages to pull off with great skill and grace. Without wishing to reveal too many spoilers, there are some big moral and ethical considerations here, and yet the narrative never feels weighed down or mired in burdensome detail. The lightness of touch is one of the most impressive things about this novel, which manages to be emotionally truthful without ever succumbing to the merest hint of sentimentality – another testament to the author’s artistry and sensitivity. Moreover, the book as a whole feels perfectly balanced in spite of the shift hallway through; we need the vitality of that first half for the poignancy of part two to hit home.
In Mayflies, O’Hagan has given us a novel of rare beauty and humanity, an exhilarating portrayal of youth and a touching ode to male friendship. I loved it to bits – very highly recommended indeed for lovers of well-crafted character-driven fiction.
Mayflies is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.
I’ve not read him before – you make a compelling case for this one.
You would like this, Simon, I’m sure.
This sounds wonderful. I’ve seen Andrew O’Hagan in conversation with Anne Enright but I haven’t read any of his fiction.
It’s really good. He gave a reading from the novel at a Faber preview event I went to last year, right at the end of February, just before the pandemic really kicked in. It was a few months before the book’s publication at that point, so I didn’t know very much about the story…but even so, he managed to communicate something of the novel’s tone in just a few well-chosen passages. I knew I wanted to read it from that point on…
I preferred the second act more than the first. I grew up with too many boys like the ones in act one!!
The gritty tough topic was compelling stuff indeed.
Ha, I get that about the laddishness of the first section, especially as it feels so authentic. I’m glad you found it compelling though, especially the second half.
Male friendship is an unusual theme in fiction. The last novel I read about it was Naomi Ishiguro’s Common Ground which is similar in structure to O’Hagan’s book but his sounds a much more mature work.
Yes, I think it is. I’ve been trying to recall other books that deal with this topic, and it’s a bit of a struggle to identify more than one or two. Graham Swift’s Last Orders comes to mind, but it’s not quite in the same space as the O’Hagan. Interesting you should mention Common Ground as I have seen various bits and pieces about that book without really grasping the detail of what it was all about! The cover design doesn’t suggest male friendship to me (not that it has to, of course!), but there’s something about that image and colour palate that implies a focus on women or feminine themes…
That’s an interesting response! The two (very different) boys meet at the local common hence the title with its double meaning plus that rather lovely green jacket.
Ah, right – thanks. The image make more sense now. That was probably just my knee-jerk response to the styling and colours!
I’m so keen to read this one Jacqui. I had Andrew booked to come to read at HomePlace before lockdown, so I’m hoping that can be rescheduled. I’ve heard only good things about this book.
Oh, fingers crossed you’ll be able to reschedule your event with O’Hagan, Cathy. I saw him give a reading from the book at a Faber preview event early last year and he was tremendous – very funny and engaging.
Excellent! He was a very close friend of Heaney’s so I’d love to hear him chat about that too.
Lovely. I’m sure that would be fascinating!
This isn’t a book I’d ordinarily be very interested in, although I did enjoy Trainspotting (as I read your review, I kept thinking of the resemblance; when you mentioned Welsh’s novel I felt very gratified!). Since I do love character-driven, well written fiction, however, I may keep this one in mind . . .
I’m glad the Trainspotting reference struck a chord. Totally understand that it might not be for you, though – we certainly can’t hope to read everything, however good it might be!
This does sound wonderful, I love the world of older teenagers and I think a positive story about male friendship is a good thing; plus the references to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Smiths is right up my street!
I loved all the music references, partly because I’m roughly the same age as O’Hagan (maybe 3 or 4 years older) so those passages about the Manchester scene were very nostalgic. In some ways, it feels weird to read about gong to music festivals and gigs, especially given all the restrictions that have been in place for the past year – but there’s something hopeful about it too, a reminder of the sheer buzz of these live experiences.
I was probably only vaguely aware of O’Hagan, not knowing anything about his writing. This sounds marvellous though. A real celebration of youth and friendship in the first part of the book. The second half with its change of tone though sounds especially intruiging.
I’ve followed his reviews and other writing (e.g. opinion pieces in the LRB) for some time, but this was my first experience of his fiction – very impressive indeed.
Very interested to read your post about this, Jacqui, as I saw O’Hagan talking about (and reading from) the book on a Scottish TV book prog a while, and thought it sounded excellent. I’ve had limited exposure to his writing but have liked what I’ve read, and I do agree that male friendship isn’t written about so much as female friendship, so this is quite refreshing. Have you read anything else by him? I know I had a copy of The Missing at one point, but I’m not sure if I still have…
Yes, I can imagine that being fascinating as he’s an excellent speaker. (I saw him give a brief reading from Mayflies at a Faber preview evening last year, just before the pandemic really took hold, and he was very engaging – that sense of exuberance really came through). This is my first experience of his fiction – like you, I’ve read some of his reviews and essays, but none of the other novels. or non-fiction books. The Missing sounds excellent – I just looked it up. One to dig out if you still have it. I’d be very interested to hear what you think…
There are a couple of O’Hagan books on the TBR, but I’ve only read short pieces by him so far which I was really impressed by. It’s odd how difficult it is to think of books with portrayals of a many-yeared male friendship. Roddy Doyle keeps coming to mind, but I’m not sure that’s accurate.
Ah, yes. Roddy Doyle is a good reference point, especially for that sense of bonding within a group. I haven’t read anything by him for years, not since The Commitments and Paddy Clarke, which was almost 30 year ago…
Here is our comment from our review last month:
Sometimes the autobiographical element of a novel weakens it; here it has a heartfelt integrity that feels like real life with all its imperfections.
Yes! I really like the way you’ve put it – that sense of ‘heartfelt integrity’ is so true…
I’d actually forgotten that you’d written about this, but now you mention it, I do recall skipping a review because I’d already decided to read the book! (That’s something I tend to do these days to avoid being too heavily influenced by what others have written. Now I can head over to yours without that being a potential problem!)
I’ve really enjoyed the novels of his I’ve read and find him a very insightful writer. This does sound excellent, the time and tonal shift is hard to carry off but it sounds really successful here.
It is quite a shift, and yet it actually feels very natural in the context of the whole book. I guess the length of the time gap between the two sections really helps, as we’re all very different people to our younger selves by the time we hit middle age. Which of his other novels have you enjoyed? I’d be interested to know, particularly as this was so good.
I really liked his debut Our Fathers, and I thought Personality was an interesting exploration of fame. The premise of Maf the Dog didn’t appeal to me but he won me over! I’ve not read Be Near Me or The Illuminations but I’ve heard good things…
Thanks. I’ll take a look at the ones you’ve read. His prose style is beautiful without being overly lyrical or sentimental, if that makes sense!
Yes, that’s it exactly!
I read Andrew O’Hagan’s first novel when it came out but I think I was put off by his focus on celebrities in what followed. This sounds much more up my street, especially given that we are very close in age.
Yes, I suspect Personality isn’t going to be for everyone, but this latest one feels much more your kind of thing. The first half gives a sense of what it must have been like to live in an area decimated by Thatcherism, with skilled workers having to accept casual employment / unskilled roles to make ends meet once the legacy industries were shut down. So the political dynamic is there without being rammed down the reader’s throat…
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His work is a gap in my reading experience but what a lot he’s written. I like the idea of his 2017 book Secret Life: Three True Stories. Not that this one doesn’t sound good!
Yes, I’d like to read more of him, for sure. I’ve long been an admirer of his essays and reviews, so it was interesting to try this novel to see a different side to his writing. It cropped up a lot in various critics’ best-of-the-year lists for 2020 – and rightly so, I think!
I’m going to revisit your review in detail later, as I’m planning to read this, which I bought for myself when it came out – shocking how long it takes me to get around to reading new books sometimes, to coincide with its paperback issue out soon.
Ha! That’s kind of what spurred me on to read it too, the prospect of the paperback release looming large on the horizon. It’s such a good novel, no wonder it ended up on various ‘best of the year’ lists at the end of 2020.
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