British writer Paul Bailey's novels have been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His new novella, "Chapman's Odyssey" (Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $16), opens with 70-year-old Harry Chapman in a London hospital suffering from a serious intestinal ailment. During the course of examinations, drugs, intravenous feeding and operations, Harry finds himself on a dreamy odyssey, recalling and assessing his childhood, family life and his relationships with a handful of lovers and friends. His journey through the thrilling life of the mind is touching, distressing, but often farcical.
When he's lucid, Harry, a so-so former actor turned accomplished novelist, recites T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare for the nurses and orderlies who tend him. But his periods of lucidity are ephemeral, and it's clear that he is dying.
Harry calls Nurse Nancy Driver his Virgil, but Bailey lets the idea of Harry being led through hell by Nurse/Virgil fizzle away after about one-third of the book. No matter, though: Harry's predicament is a sort of hell and a bit of burlesque. In his imagination, he is visited by his deceased mother and his aunt; his aunt is cheerful, but mother calls Harry "the same useless object I brought into the world." Their bickering offers some droll moments.
Harry's father is kind enough; unfortunately, though, he died when Harry was 11. But dad's death doesn't prevent Harry's phantasmagoric visits to his father in the trenches of WWI before Harry was even born. Harry drops in on friends and lovers from his youth, too, and visits scenes from his adult past as he moves in and out of consciousness.
If you're a classic literature connoisseur, you'll find Harry's cameos by other visitors amusing. Dickens' Pip and a couple of Dickensian nurses, Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse and Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin show up. Harry's mother even trades insults with Virginia Woolf, a "high-and-mighty cow," whom Harry doesn't think much of either. Even Fred Astaire shows up to sing to and waltz with Queen Céleste, the new wife of King Babar.
Bailey skillfully portrays disparate kinds of love, hate and desire as we age. But his thoughts on the afterlife -- that heaven is what you imagine it to be -- are rather ordinary. Still, Bailey, like his protagonist Chapman, is an enthusiast who expertly uses words to convey something of the mystery and wonder of human existence.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, blogs at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/