After the Wake is a collection of short prose works by the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. It was put together in 1981; Behan had died in 1964. There are seven stories here, followed by fourteen brief essays written as columns for The Irish Press between 1954 and 1956. The columns are gathered together under the title "The Same Again, Please". At the end there is a brief glossary which explains where Aughrim is and why it's notable, and what "do chum glóre Dé agus anóra na hÉireann" means in the Irish language ("for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland", in case somebody says that to you at a bus stop and you're not sure how to respond).
Behan's notoriety as a Famous Irish Drunk has overshadowed (hell, buried) his reputation as a writer, at least in the US. That's a shame. Drunks are a dime a dozen, but writers like Behan are scarcer than they should be.
Here's a quick table of contents for those who enjoy lists of things as much as I do:
- The Last of Mrs. Murphy
- I Become a Borstal Boy
- The Execution
- The Confirmation Suit
- After the Wake
- A Woman of No Standing
- The Catacombs
- The Same Again, Please
The stories are mostly homey, local colorized tales of people in mid-century Dublin. They're a bit like the all those moral-something-or-other stories in Dubliners but they're a lot more eventful1. They seem to be autobiographical, and some surely are: "I Become a Borstal Boy" is about just that: Behan's imprisonment (for involvement in the IRA) in England during the 1940s. I hope "The Execution" is made up, because it's about the execution of an IRA man who'd been arrested and gave away a safe house to the police. In the title story, the narrator is gay, which I don't believe Behan was, so he may have made that one up.
Whether the characters are all Behan or not, the viewpoint is very much Behan's: A sort of commonsensical lower-middle class Everyman, in love with the human race and passionately interested in what turns the gears in people's hearts. He's interested in right and wrong, but he's no theologian and he's not the more abstract kind of idealist. He's more merciful than just about the difficult choices people make. Always, above all, he's a man with a very great talent for language and description.
In the 1950s, when Behan wrote the short fiction herein, he was trying to be a real literary writer and he was still sober enough to pull it off. He should've stuck with it. The stories are tight, focused, and professional. It's fine writing by any measure, and you get the added bonus of listening to one of the more likeable minds who've set pen to paper in the last century or so.
The newspaper essays at the end are looser and more casual than the fiction. They're little witty anecdotes, mostly nostalgic and often sentimental, written for a more popular audience than the fiction. They're hard not to like, because Behan himself is hard not to like.
1 And the action takes place fifty years later, of course. More pervasively, Behan feels a real kinship with his characters: He's one of them. Joyce never forgets that, well, he's James Joyce and you're not. Behan didn't write to prove any points about Aquinas, is maybe what I'm trying to say.