The Great Unexpected, the Not The Booker-nominated second novel by Dan Mooney, could have been uncomfortable to praise due to its sensitive subject matter. Joel Monroe has been grief-stricken, bad-tempered and isolated from those around him since his wife passed three years ago. Now 76 and living in Hilltop nursing home where decisions of when to eat, sleep and take his pills are made for him, he decides to take charge of his own fate and kill himself. His decision is so rationally reached, and his current existence so ignominious, that for a good part of the novel you want to agree with him.
But the novel is so much more than a story of suicide. Joel and new friend Frank – a lively retired actor who knows a thing or two about hiding his true self – set off to find the perfect suicide but slowly, cautiously, end up lifting each other up along the way.
This is an unusual and important book, delving readily into themes of masculinity, friendship, and bonds between fathers and grown-up children. At first, it is surprising how often Joel cries, or hugs his friend, or even shares his emotions. In reality, it is saddening that this is surprising in a male character. Joel’s emotional honesty is no doubt a conscious decision from Mooney, in the current crisis of male mental health, to quicken the tearing down of stoic stereotypes. The term depression is never used, but Joel is haunted by “something darker, malevolent but intangible… just beyond the ends of his senses. A bleakness that spread like a cloud around him, thickly, invading his space, his mind.” This “cloud,” rather than any overt diagnosis, is gradually referred to less and less, giving a subtle, rather than an overly clinical picture of recovery.
Mooney also strikes true on ageing, and the relationship between generations. During one of Frank and Joel’s breakouts from Hilltop, Joel worries people on the bus will turn them in, before recognising that nobody would pay attention to two old men. This is a reminder to us all to see beyond our own experiences. In the same spirit, Joel manages to salvage his relationship with his grandchildren and decides to try and keep up with how the world is changing. The Irish author Mooney is in his early 30s and doesn’t attempt to affect an older person’s way of speaking – regardless, Joel and Frank are believably-drawn septuagenarians.
Despite being for the most part confined to a nursing home, the narrative scope never feels too small, and this is due to quick-witted dialogue and developed characters filling every page. There is enough humour and warmth among the poignancy to make this a thoroughly enjoyable and re-readable book. The writing can only be criticised on how characters seem to go back and forth on themselves, with the same arguments offered and passed round repeatedly. However, this toes the line of realism – some problems and decisions cannot be easily closed, and so only rarely does the storyline feel repetitive. Ultimately this is a fresh and heartfelt book, promising that it is never too late to be saved, or change yourself for the better.
The Great Unexpected by Dan Mooney
Legend Press (2018).
Image: Legend Press.