As he stops off at Shiny New Books on his book tour, we asked J Paul Henderson, author of The Last of the Bowmans (reviewed here), to explore where the black humour comes from in the dysfunctional family in his new novel?
I was immediately transported back to the summer of 1969 when I read this question – and not to the First Bath Festival of Blues of that year. It reminded me of final exams, sitting in a large Edwardian hall in North Wales and looking through a paper I’d just been given permission to turn over.
At first sight it’s a question you think you understand, but on second reading don’t. And then, after further study, you decide to abandon it in favour of answering another question that probably starts with the word describe. In this case, though, there are no other questions, and so this might be tricky.
In the first instance – and this might seem a bit literal – the black humour comes from me. The odd thing, though, is that I’ve never really considered myself to be a black humorist, only an inappropriate one. But, by every definition in the book, it does appear that my humour is black: I make light of otherwise serious subjects, and instead of treating them with gravity I play them for laughs.
It would be nice to argue that my humour is based on strong philosophical underpinnings, and that after taking long walks over the moors in the pouring rain I’d come to the conclusion that human existence was pointless and ironic and suffering too absurd to be pitied. But the answer, I’m afraid, is a lot more mundane: I just have a hard time taking things seriously. I think it’s a gift.
So for me, distinguishing between black and inappropriate humour is never an easy matter and probably best left to others. I’m happy for you to make the decision.
The story opens with the death of Lyle Bowman, the longsuffering but short-sighted patriarch of the family who’s knocked down and killed by a bus shortly after mistaking a jar of white spirit for a glass of liquid antibiotics. To his way of thinking, death couldn’t have come at a worse time: he was halfway through a paintjob and there were outstanding family matters to attend to – his brother, Frank, is handing himself into the police on a regular basis, and his older son, Billy, appears to be a lot more troubled than usual.
Lyle’s experience in the Afterlife, however, is less than happy – worse, in fact, than his funeral – and in recompense for the poor customer service he receives there, he’s granted a twenty-day furlough back to the world where he takes up residence in the loft of the family house and awaits the arrival of his younger son, Greg – the son of last resort, but the only one now capable of fixing the family. It’s also a chance for the two of them to get to know each other, and with Lyle dressed in the ball gowns of his late wife they meet for nightly chats and Greg’s progress reports on Uncle Frank and Billy.
Uncle Frank is a deaf libertarian with no friends, banned from the local Co-op and under the impression that the government has turned off his television set. Such events are nothing out of the ordinary in his uncle’s life, but what has changed, Greg learns, is the old man’s determination to turn his back on the land he perceives to have kicked him his whole life and end his days in the Wild West of his dreams – Montana. To acquire the sufficient funds to buy a ranch there he’s decided to rob a bank, and hopes to recruit the services of Syd Butterfield, his brother’s oldest friend – a second-hand car dealer with more hair growing out of his nose and ears than the top of his head, and The Reverend Bill Tinkler, the minister who gave the eulogy at Lyle’s funeral service (two index cards) and who has never come to terms with the fact that his wife, despite holding a senior position in the Blood Transfusion Unit, has run off with a Jehovah’s Witness…
Once Uncle Frank’s problems are in hand, Greg then turns his attention to his estranged brother Billy, someone he fell out with seven years previously over the rights and wrongs of painting plastic drainpipes. Billy is married to Greg’s sworn enemy, Jean, and the father of a young daughter who sings Hit Me Baby One More Time at Lyle’s funeral. Although the more reliable of the two brothers, he has a secret, a confidence he’s shared with no-one: he is dogged by a morbid and abiding fear of feet. The phobia has led him to fall in love with a woman in the accounts department with no feet, and to win her love he sets about making a small town on the south coast of England wheelchair friendly. His attentions, however, are rebuffed, and his unwanted stalking of her eventually leads to his suspension from the company. He now spends his days pretending to work, lying to his wife and visiting a therapist…
No sooner has Greg finished grappling with the problems of his uncle and brother, than he discovers in his father’s papers something that leads him to believe that he and Billy have a half-sibling. And so Greg starts on yet another quest and comes face to face with Bicycle Boy and the unintended consequences of his own past.
To me, this is just an everyday story of humanity, but possibly not for others. There are deaths, funerals, failing senses, phobias, amputees and wheelchairs, and they’re all played for laughs, which, considering that Nazi Germany took these subjects seriously, might not be a bad thing.
I hope this answers the question because I’m not resitting the paper.
J. Paul Henderson, The Last of the Bowmans (No Exit Press, 2016). 978-1843442776, 288pp., paperback original.
BUY Last of the Bowmans from the Book Depository.