The Guts by Roddy Doyle
When Roddy Doyle published his first novel, The Commitments, it was like nothing else in Irish writing. Doyle arrived on a scene dominated by older writers who were solemnly concerned with traditional tropes of 20th century Irish literature — spiritual stagnation, the influences of the church and of recent history on life as it was lived in contemporary Ireland, the experience of exile, sensitive first-person narrators. Into this self-consciously high-minded but downbeat literary scene, The Commitments arrived like somebody opening a door on a late-night conversation that had been going on too long, had involved too few people, and had started to go round in circles for want of new input: light and air flooded in, along with a friendly, energetic companion who was refreshingly unbothered by all the stuff that his peers appeared to be obsessed with. Doyle’s spare, energetic, dialogue-driven style completely flummoxed at least one long-term commentator on Irish lit, the German academic Rudiger Imhof, who in his hugely eccentric critical study The Modern Irish Novel wrote that Doyle was not in the same league as other Irish writers of his generation because his books didn’t contain extended passages of description. Well, I mean, wha’?
Imhof’s cantankerous book, obsessed as it was with a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of certain modernist tendencies in European literature, is in most respects more valuable as kindling for a convivial back-yard cookup than as literary criticism, except insofar it demonstrates just how alien Doyle appeared in the late 80s to one tiny but nevertheless influential corner of the Irish literary establishment. The proof was in the reading. Doyle’s work was popular with Irish readers because everybody else was writing according to very complex and involved notions about what sort of thing Irish writers ought to write, most of which precluded energy and humour. Anthony Lane, in a New Yorker essay from 1996, wrote about how most literary novels aren’t very good because they’re written by writers who ‘lumber around around with too many ideas on their back, ignoring the calls of the auditory imagination’; the effort to be serious and meaningful robs the writing of the crude vitality you find in the zippiest popular fiction. It was so with Irish fiction in the late 80s. Then Roddy Doyle came along. Shortly after came Anne Enright, and before you knew it the whole thing busted wide open.
A serious and thoughtful writer, Doyle has nevertheless experienced great popular success. One reason for this is that his ear for the different cadences of Dublin speech is sharper than anyone’s since Flann O’Brien. Or rather, sharper than Flann O’Brien’s. Brian O’Nolan, to call O’Brien by his real name, learned the cadences of Dublin speech not in childhood, having grown up in Northern Ireland in an Irish-speaking household, but from hanging around in the overwhelmingly male world of Dublin pubs in the 1940s and 50s; whereas Roddy Doyle learned them from growing up in the company of men, women and children in Dublin in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
It helps, too, that Doyle had an interest in registering the world about him. Dermot Bolger, another Dublin novelist of Doyle’s age, grew up in a similar environment, but for various complicated reasons, Bolger has never been interested in pretending that his stories happen in a world that most readers would recognise as the one about them. Instead, like his hero Francis Stuart, Bolger has been more interested in limning some private authorly vision of his own, to the vast detriment of his writing.
Another ace in Doyle’s hand is a sense of dramatic storytelling. It didn’t hurt that in the late 80s he also wrote plays for Dublin’s Passion Machine theatre company, which at the time was one of the most vital outputs for new writing in the country, presenting exuberantly theatrical works about the lives of working-class Dubliners. Doyle’s plays for Passion Machine tended to be funnier and more absurd than those of its artistic director and chief playwright Paul Mercier, whose Studs was a typical early-to-mid-period Passion Machine show in terms of its dramatic arc: a rubbish football team got a shot at the big time and began to win games, until some dramatic revelation or other that I can no longer remember caused their inspiring manager to walk away from them, whereupon they relapsed back into failure and obscurity, lamenting the destruction of their dreams. Studs was a puzzling show: it raised the audience’s hopes, only to make the dashing of them all the more painful. Doyle’s The Commitments, written slightly earlier, had a similar dramatic arc except that although The Commitments tear themselves to bits on the eve of success, Jimmy and his cronies are seen bouncing back at the end, planning their new country-punk band, refusing to let themselves be defined by failure.
Another reason for Doyle’s popularity is that, unlike slightly older contemporaries such as John Banville or Colm Toibin, he doesn’t let his characters be very eloquent about their troubles. From the outset, he’s preferred to let the reader infer what his characters are thinking by describing what the characters do. As a result, although Doyle’s central characters (the Jimmy Rabbittes Sr and Jr, Paula Spencer, Paddy Clarke) are always intelligent, they tend to be not very introspective, and so they continually surprise themselves with their own reactions to things. A classic example is in the opening pages of The Snapper, when Sharon Rabbitte tells her parents that she’s pregnant:
-It’s shockin’, said Jimmy Sr again, -so it is. Wha’ do you think o’ this?
He was talking to Veronica.
-I don’t know, said Veronica.
-Is tha’ the best yeh can do, Veronica?
-Well, what do YOU think?
Jimmy Sr creased his face and held it that way for a second.
-I don’t know, he said. -I should give ou’, I suppose. An’ throw a wobbler or somethin’. But—what’s the point?
Veronica nodded. She looked very tired now.
Jimmy Sr continued.
-If she was-
He turned to Sharon.
-You should’ve come to us earlier -before, yeh know – an’ said you were goin’ to get pregnant.
The three of them tried to laugh.
-Then we could’ve done somethin’ abou’ it. —My God, though.
No one said anything. Then Jimmy Sr spoke to Sharon again.
-You’re absolutely sure now? Positive?
-Yeah, I am. I done-
-Did, said Veronica.
-I did the test.
-The test? said Jimmy Sr. -Oh. -Did yeh go in by yourself?
-Yeah, said Sharon.
-Did yeh? Fair play to yeh, said Jimmy Sr. -I’d never’ve thought o’ tha’.
The observation here is lovely (Veronica automatically correcting her daughter’s grammar) but the subtlety is in how Jimmy Sr behaves almost as if he knows that he’s a character in an Irish novel, as if he realises that it’s expected of him that he behave like a threatening and destructive authority figure, but he can’t bring himself to do it. His instinct is not to expel his daughter from the house, which is what he’d do if he were a character in a novel by an earlier generation of novelist such as Sean Ó Faoláin or Michael Farrell, but rather to compliment her on her resourcefulness. To get an idea of the context: in the late 1980s, the period in which The Snapper is set, it was technically legal but practically almost impossible to buy contraception over the counter in Irish pharmacies. Jimmy Sr’s avowal that they ‘could’ve done somethin’ abou’ it’ is a nod to the enormous double standard that existed in Ireland at the time, and to a certain extent still exists today; contraception was technically legal, but there was enormous silent disapproval for it, and yet people used it when they had to. It was this hypocrisy that Doyle’s fiction showed up for what it was, by casually showing how people behaved when they didn’t give a fuck about it.
Doyle has talked in interviews about the resilience and capacity for laughter of the working-class kids he encountered, back in his days as a schoolteacher. This resilience, humanity and quick-wittedness is what fires up the characters in the Barrytown Trilogy, which for better or for worse appears to be the most admired fiction that he’s yet written. And so we come to the present book, which presents Jimmy Rabbitte, the hero of The Commitments, some 25 years on. Jimmy is no longer 22 but 47, married with a daughter and three sons, and when the book begins he’s just been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The good news is that Doyle’s ear for the truth in dialogue is as sharp as ever. Jimmy Jr breaks the news to Jimmy Sr in an exchange that points up the perennially unflappable nature of a certain kind of Irish masculinity:
-I have cancer.
-I’m serious, Da.
Later in the book, Jimmy Jr’s normally sensible teenage daughter Mahalia gets into trouble at school when she and some other girls are found drunk on school property. Jimmy’s way of dealing with being called in for a conversation with the principal is the kind of thing that links this book to the earlier book, by showing us that this is indeed the old Jimmy: just when he senses that the principal is about to tell him what Mahalia’s punishment will be, he informs her that he has cancer. The result is that Mahalia is only suspended, not expelled. Jimmy’s very savvy wife Aoife, an interesting new character in Barrytown continuity, praises him:
-Calling in the cancer was a masterstroke.
-I thought so.
This is a new variation on what Doyle does so well. Aoife is not the first strong woman in Doyle’s fiction but she’s one of the sharpest. Another realistic note is that Aoife’s dialogue is presented as slightly less colloquial, slightly more upmarket, than Jimmy’s, just as all of Jimmy’s children sound more middle-class than him; this in turn points up what was less obvious earlier, which is that Jimmy Jr has a more cosmopolitan turn of phrase than his father.
However, in spite of the surface realism, there are problems. All of the earlier Barrytown novels were in effect plotless. They presented situations — Jimmy Jr forms a band, Sharon has a baby, Jimmy Sr goes to work for his best friend — and patiently worked out the consequences of the situations. The Guts, too, is built around a situation: Jimmy has cancer. But it also has a plot, which is only tangentially linked to Jimmy’s illness. Jimmy and Aoife founded a successful business, an online website called kelticpunk.com which markets digital downloads of half-forgotten Irish punk bands; once it became too successful for them to manage by themselves, they sold it on, Jimmy continuing to work there as an employee. But thanks to Ireland’s economic downturn, the business is failing. Nevertheless, by means of equal parts luck, coincidence and deception, Jimmy is able to devise a rather complicated way of mending its fortunes. The scam itself defies plausibility by being based on a huge secret being securely kept, and if there’s one thing you can’t rely on in this age of perfect information retrieval, it’s that secrets are keepable. As if that weren’t enough, it has another separate storyline, so separate that it’s practically quarantined from the rest of the book, in which — spoiler alert even though it’s practically signposted on the back cover! — Jimmy starts an affair with his still-sexy former bandmate Imelda Quirk.
Plots are tricky things. Like the devil, they’re always eager to step in and help you out but unless you have uncanny powers of control, they’ll bite you on the ass in the final reckoning. I don’t see what the cancer, the business and the affair all have to do with each other, unless this novel is the first part of an as-yet unannounced trilogy, and since Doyle has not so much as hinted that there’s more to come, we can only take The Guts on its own merits. Considerable as those are, the book’s structure is loose to the point of flapping and creaking in the wind. The many excellent passages, such as Jimmy meeting his old bandmate Outspan in the cancer ward, or the rather sad and rueful hookups between Jimmy and Imelda, do not bounce off each other in any way, and indeed seem to belong to alternative versions of the book.
A major problem is that for much of the book, Jimmy is simply not himself. Doyle’s point-of-view characters thrive on being slightly smarter, slightly more aware, slightly more alert, than the people around them. It’s as true of Jimmy in The Commitments as it is of Sharon in The Snapper, Jimmy Sr in The Van, Paddy in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and so on. But for much of The Guts, Jimmy’s condition detaches him from the world. For very realistic reasons he spends a lot of the book drowsy, nauseated or just asleep. At one point, it becomes clear that he’s clinically depressed, or has been, and yet it takes place within just ten pages, and seems to clear up magically quickly, and we get no sense of exactly how much time has passed in the real world.
It would be nice to think that The Guts is part one of something. Jimmy Rabbitte Sr has hitherto dominated the Barrytown novels by virtue of his sheer comic verve and Chumbawumba-like insistence on getting up again after being knocked down, not to mention Colm Meaney’s outstanding performances in the three movies based on the novels (although in Stephen Frears’ The Snapper and The Van, the family had to be renamed the Curleys for copyright reasons). But Jimmy Jr, the hustler motivated by love, the visionary scam artist, is himself an inspired creation and it’s good to have him back. Nevertheless, The Guts feels like a salvo towards something bigger, rather than a finished work in itself.
My Goodreads review of The Guts, by Roddy Doyle