There are certain images of Wales that are hard to shake: male voice choirs, coal miners, rugby, sheep, women in strange costumes playing the harp, the seriously-suited chapel-goer. None of these appear in ‘The Last Hit’ by Llwyd Owen, a previous winner of the Welsh Language Book of the Year. He is far more interested in the underworld, the seedy secrets that lie underneath the respectable veneer, a Welsh…er…Irvine Welsh.
The story of Tubbs, a sensitive man-mountain of a hitman, moves along at a rollicking pace. Left to avenge his mother’s death by finding her killer, he works for his surrogate father, T-Bone, a none-too-pleasant leader of the local biker gang. There’s clearly a dark secret involved somewhere and in the process of revealing it we come across a cast that’s great to read about but whom you probably wouldn’t want to meet. There’s the slapstick pair of Vexl and Gimp from Barry, Luca the rock star who resides in west Wales and Petra, the Merthyr girl with a heart of gold and nerves of steel. And there’s a great deal of drugs. Characters are rolling up, crushing pills and snorting at every possible opportunity. And loving it.
There are some memorable set-pieces. The opening is enigmatic and atmospheric, whenever Vexl and Gimp appear there are some great touches of humour and you can’t help but root for Tubbs from the opening few sentences, even as he kills a far-too-talkative Scouser. But it’s not all action. There are some serious issues discussed: the nature of violence, domestic violence, corruption and prostitution. Even under the surface of the enjoyment of substance abuse there is plenty of sadness and tragedy, of how people’s lives get caught up in a web others have spun for them. Trapped and alone, with the foolishness of her own desire for Gimp and destroyed by prostitution and drugs is the tragic figure of Vicky. Tubbs himself is trapped and in Petra we see how easy people, women especially, can become victims of male power and violence.
However, this is a feel-good story and our hero is Tubbs. Owen enjoys telling the story and the novel is a page-turner, all leading up to a fitting climax as the various strands are drawn together. If you’re looking for a book to read on the beach this summer or, as might be the case, looking for a book to read while waiting for the incessant Welsh rain to stop, you should enjoy ‘The Last Hit’. It won’t win the Booker but strap yourself in, it’s quite a ride.
‘The Last Hit’ by Llwyd Owen is published by Y Lolfa.