:: Article

Words, words, words

By Alex Diggins.

Thomas McMullan, The Last Good Man (Bloomsbury 2020)

“If you can’t trust in words, what can you trust in?”—this question, asked but never answered, echoes through Thomas McMullan’s debut novel, The Last Good Man. In it, language carries a price; it exacts heavy cost. Words are spent freely—and parsimoniously weighed and measured. They punish, reward and disguise. They reveal truths and spin falsehoods. They are judge and jury. They break bones.

Our hero is Duncan Peck. There has been some kind of ecological catastrophe—slow-burning and terminal. Food is rationed, and there are too many hungry mouths. Law and order is arbitrary and haphazard. We meet Peck on the opening pages, becalmed in a soaking winter mist on Dartmoor, a remote expanse of rugged ground in south-west England. Peck is fleeing the city where everywhere “there is the smell of death”. He has come to meet his childhood companion, James Hale, who vanished three years’ before.  Out of nowhere, Hale has sent a letter inviting Peck to a village—never named—hidden away on Dartmoor. At first, it seems a kind of Shangri-La: refuge from the gradual contraction of the world outside. There is a teashop, a school and a church; pig pens, chickens, and stores of crops: food. But most of all, for the lonely Peck, worn threadbare and ghostly by the ducking and diving of city living, there is community:

The pang of food hangs above the heads of men, women and children jostling. The smell of wet earth is masked with the rich scent of pastry and a loaf of barley bread is broken into handfuls, given out in baskets to those that want a taste.

The village has a ghastly open secret, though: a vast wall, massive on the skyline above the village. Its “angular jut … is unmistakable. Taken against the moorland it looks so unnatural, so much of a statement and yet small compared to the blankness all around.” On the wall is pasted the usual parish council bumf: missing cats, choir meetings and after-school clubs. But above these notices, it holds accusations too: scrawled huge, anonymous and unarguable: “I KNOW ALL ABOUT ANNA MOAR AND SCOTT DOYLE AND IT IS DISGUSTING WHAT THEY ARE DOING. SCOTT DOYLE IS A FUCKER. ANNA MOAR IS A WHORE.”

The village turns on the spike of these accusations. Those found guilty are burdened with furniture. Tables, chest of drawers, chairs and hall mirrors are strapped to them—a punishment both barbaric and absurd. Find your name on the wall repeatedly, though, and the reckoning is more baroque. The accused are strapped to scaffolding on the village green, their limbs smashed with metal clubs. They are placed in stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables. People who try to escape are hunted down by bands of their neighbours, called chasers. The town has its own quasi-sheriff who organises this hue and cry. When Peck arrives, his old friend, James Hale, is in this role.

McMullan has crafted an impressively taut, thoughtful novel from these exuberant materials. He writes with a muscular lyricism; the book’s moral gaze is both pitiless and ambivalent. The idea for the village’s great wall came to McMullan, a journalist, when he was teaching in rural China. In one small village, he found a building scrawled with the misdeeds of the community: a palimpsest of slights and sins. It was a relic of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a communal purging of bourgeois sentiment. McMullan’s usually voluble guide fell quiet in its shadow; silenced by this singular carnival of accusation. This extraordinary encounter surfaces obliquely in The Last Good Man. By distancing his novel in time and space, McMullan gives himself thinking room to navigate the deeper resonances of this artefact—how do we trust what is said or written? Why is language less fickle than the human heart? Is community anything more than a shared fiction: brittle and all-too-easily co-opted?

The Last Good Man gives no easy answers. A note of cool, sustained ambiguity runs through the narrative, right up to its quiet fade-out of its ending. McMullan makes no bones of his literary influences: the blood-soaked spectre of mid-career Cormac McCarthy—Child of God, Blood Meridian —haunts the grandeur of the landscape descriptions, and the sudden flashes of brutish violence which punctuate the narrative; the stolid bulk of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is unavoidable in the post-apocalyptic setting and the festivals of communal denunciation and retribution.

But he tips his hat to more unexpected antecedents, too. Most chapters start with a fresh set of accusations daubed on the wall. They appear, in different type and font, before the main bulk of the story. It’s a potent device, lending a dizzying breathlessness to the action. “Things have been getting worse,” characters frequently remark to each other as charge is daubed on charge, and calls for revenge grow louder and more violent. This nesting of motives and accusations, and the plot’s relentless percussive beat, calls to mind the pacing and murky morality of Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction. Yet just beneath these accusations, McMullan contrasts quiet, sparsely beautiful descriptions of village life:

The paint is still wet on the wall; a cardinal dew facing the village as mist hangs over the fields. A sonorous void. The light is new born, it ignites the land in all its contours. A lone cow counts the perimeter of its enclosure. The pigs are burning in their dreams.

I can’t be alone in hearing echoes of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milkwood’ here. The shushing, slapping rhythms of “still wet on the wall” recall Thomas’s famous opening lines: “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbingsea”. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is another parallel. In that novel, as in Last Good Man, no distinction is made between human and non-human life; the comings and goings of both receive the same equal and exacting attention. Human darkness—in McGregor, the disappearance of a young girl; in McMullan, murder, betrayal and corporal punishment—is simultaneously shadowed in, and overshadowed by, the inscrutable turning of the natural world.

Late in Last Good Man, two characters dispose of a flensed pony carcass in a bog, “its mane fann[ing] out across the famished ground”. The saturated soil swiftly vanishes their evidence: “The bog has swallowed the remains of the pony, and now there is nothing, absolutely nothing, except the two of them in the dark.” But this largesse demands repayment; and one of those characters will later themselves tumble into a mire. “He is a few feet away, buried up to his chest,” McMullan writes. “The ground is up to his neck, one arm already below the waterline, the other outstretched … his mouth disappears below the earth.” It is perhaps too simplistic to suggest that the brute calculus which rules the villagers’ lives—a leg for lustiness, a chest of drawers for greed—is mimicked in their environment. But certainly the dull concussions of ecological catastrophe which reverberate in Last Good Man suggest the debts humanity owes nature are being called in. Note that it is “his mouth” which is last to drown. In a book in which language is so charged, it is significant that this muddy gargling is the most chilling sound we hear.

But words also hold weight. McMullan pushes the carrying capacity of language—both in his own high-wire descriptions, and in the various registers of writing encountered in Last Good Man. He is an enthusiastic foot soldier in Martin Amis’s war against cliché. Hot pies cannot simply bake in the oven; they must “purr in their new life”. Occasionally, this mania for originality forces some comic contortions. Those piping pastries have been retrieved from the oven and “all three men sit in silence with hot pies on porcelain plates, as if conducting some strange séance”. But, more often, these experiments triumph. Commonplace occurrences are seen anew: limed with strangeness and wonder.

She closes her eyes and listens to the thunder roll through the moorland. She thinks about how many aches there are amongst the storm clouds. The rain falling over the tor, the wind and the rumble, all of them foreign languages. A thousand tongues wagging.

Gossip, rumour, incomprehension—these are the stuff of nature as well as human interaction. There is an authentic freshness here which, again, recalls McCarthy. In both writers’ work, we perceive dimly  a great and terrible space which encompasses the brief flicker of human lives: an outer darkness that admits no light and baffles comprehension.

Not that the characters need much help generating chaos. The village is built on a shadowy edifice of half-truths and outright lies. The wall is the most public example of this mayhem. But writing is used to hoard knowledge and preserve power as well. Maisie, the daughter of Hale’s neighbour, scribbles compulsively in a diary.

‘It’s clever to keep a diary,’ Peck says, hovering closer to the girl … Another step, but as if he crossed some invisible threshold. Maisie’s attention is provoked and she turns with a swipe of the eyes. ‘It’s private,’ she slices in a small but adamant voice.

Her secrecy has a more sinister twin in the record keeping of Brian Goss, the village’s oleaginous headman. Goss politely ducks the label of leader; yet the “fabled records” of the community’s accounts give him an unspoken authority, ill-defined but unshakeable. Peck reflects: “This administrator, this minister will not have his name stamped on the judgements that he sets on his way. Perhaps it is cowardice. No doubt it is cleverness, to stand one step below the chopping block.” The first writing system, cuneiform, was developed by Sumerian scribes nearly 5,000 years’ ago; even after civilisation’s collapse, McMullan notes, it is civil servants who will inherit the earth.

The wall, Goss says, makes the world a “place that can be understood”. Yet this legibility eludes the reader; like Peck, we leave the book—and the village—no wiser than we arrived. A disquieting vagueness lingers long after McMullan’s riddling novel is done. “Sometimes it can be hard to know up from down. It can be impossible to make out the edges.” Here, at the end of all things, words are no help at all.

Alex Diggins is a writer and editor based in London. His writing has appeared in, among others, The Economist, The TLS, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine and The Spectator. He is also published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). Reach him on Twitter: @AHABDiggins.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 28th, 2020.