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Book review: <i>It’s What He Would’ve Wanted</i> by Sean Hughes

If this was a drink, it would be the fifth afternoon pint by yourself in a pub when the endorphin buzz has been well and truly supplanted by fatigue and you suddenly realise you’d rather be nearly anywhere else, if you had anywhere else to be, but you don’t, and on the other hand you’ve just paid for this beer, haven’t you?


Some uninspired weather-forecast pictograms against a garish blue and yellow background that says “remainder table” far too loudly.


Shea is a single, thirty-ish Londonite with no real job, no partner, and few friends. In short, he has little to do, but little to worry about, until, during a family visit, he discovers his father found hanging from the ceiling of his study. The man wasn’t depressive and had no obvious problems, so this is a doubly wrenching occurrence for his two sons; Shea’s brother vanishes, abandoning his pregnant wife, and Shea becomes borderline obsessive over his father’s diaries and the cryptic entries they contain. Their relationship was strained, and Shea feels as though he owes it to the man to gain some understanding of him after his death, now that the alternative is impossible. Shea’s dad was a weatherman and the constant meteorological updates in his journals, Shea soon realises, represent people from his father’s life, people Shea and his mother are unaware of, so he sets out to unearth these individuals and discover their relevance to his Dad’s life and whether or not they contributed to its end.

The good

Hughes, a comedian and one-time sitcom star, has an interesting style, at once urban and contemporary yet thematically rooted in the jolly old Irish literary traditions of simmering misanthropy, self-loathing and nihilism. From the first few pages he makes clear a desire to avoid textual clichés, and achieves this goal with some success.

His comedic mind seems only partly employed by his literary self, whether by design or otherwise I can’t quite say. This is a considerably funnier book than his first, although, given that The Detainees concerned a crumbling sham of a marriage where the unfaithful wife was a mentally ill mute with AIDS, this isn’t a big surprise. It’s noticeable, too, given that his comedy was, although not as light as fellow Irishman Ed Byrne, certainly not as dark as Dylan Moran’s. I can admire Hughes for writing something serious and employing themes about family and truth which obviously mean something to him – the characters of the parents are written in such a way that I refuse to believe they have nothing in common with his own, and the main character seems certainly superficially similar to Sean – even their names are close.

The occasional moments of humour are as good as you’d hope, and I particularly enjoyed the Elton-esque tangents about haircuts and London life.

The bad

This just didn’t work for me. It’s a pity Hughes didn’t approach the plotting the way he approached the prose, because there isn’t nearly enough of an attempt to convey his message in a novel manner. I know sometimes life comes at you in a laughably contrived fashion, but that is a tough fictive trick to pull off, as innumerable atrocious farces can attest, and although Sean’s characters feel true, the situations that surround them and events that conspire feel old, old, old. Sure, we often repeat the mistakes of our fathers, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with rewriting the same old story without doing something new with it. As a result the characters feel trapped, which may or may not be intentional, but is certainly irritating, especially when it’s paced like an alcoholic on an obstacle course.

Overall I found these two aspects of the book the most frustrating:<.p>

Hughes has ideas, but often can’t quite express them with any grace. This may be a personal thing, but I found myself unable to form any cohesive picture of Shea’s father. Now, I’m sure his character is supposed to be elusive – without mystery Shea’s search would be meaningless – but nothing Shea discovers during the course of the book, not even during the climax, served to form him into a cohesive man for me. Again, this may be deliberate, but the fact that I can’t tell whether it is or not is Hughes’ fault, not mine. The echoing effect of lies is a recurrent theme in the story, so wouldn’t it have been more fitting for the ending to resonate strongly either with the idea of truth OR its opposite, and not some feeble mish-mash of the two?

This slurredness of message also occurs within the prose itself. For example, in one paragraph Hughes states that we’re all animals deep down, then that monkeys laugh at us with relief when they see the extra burden we have in the form of conscience, then that we take care of the monkeys better than we take care of our own homeless, and then that the only difference between us and monkeys is that we’ve learned to busk. As you can see, these four statements are connected thematically, but that’s about it – they contradict each other in the order they’re written, except the last bit, which is meant to round the thought off with a joke except it doesn’t make sense and isn’t funny. Which brings me to frustrating point two:
Hughes can be hilarious in front of a crowd - with a bit of the old on-stage polish (attention to timing, rhythm of delivery, etc – all those things the Irish are known for) I’m sure he could have moulded a clump of verbiage like that into something tight, incisive and funny, or at least funny. There’s no problem with the serious undercurrents in this book, but without bringing his comedic skills to the party Hughes is ignoring the guest of honour, and I suspect it’s partly out of a pique-ish yearning for cred, which is just silly. If it’s true.

What I learnt

That I’d rather read a funny person’s semi-successful attempt to transfer their humour to the page than a funny person’s semi-successful attempt to be taken seriously in print.

In short

Title: It’s What He Would’ve Wanted
Author: Sean Hughes
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 0684860295
Year published: 2000
Pages: 304
Genre(s): Contemporary literature

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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