Roddy Doyle, Master of Working-Class Family Drama
The Irish author's latest novel, The Guts, does what Doyle has done since he first published The Commitments: expertly weave sadness, tenderness, awkwardness, and pride into every page.
There are readers of Roddy Doyle’s fiction, and then there are readers, and I confess to falling into the latter group.
I didn’t fly to Dublin specifically to pick up an early copy of The Guts, his latest book, but it would have been a terrible personal failure had I returned home empty-handed. Here it was at last, not just a new novel, but a Barrytown novel, his first in two decades. (The last was The Van, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, an award the Irish author would later receive for the unrelated Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha.)
Doyle’s collected works are a superlative study of family, aging, and the dignity of the working class—and his latest novel is a worthy addition to an oeuvre that Doyle began building more than two decades ago with The Commitments.
His debut novel in 1987 opens with wily teenage musician Jimmy Rabbitte explaining how the black community in America, amidst institutionalized racism and segregation, created rock and roll. The monologue culminates with Jimmy rallying his friends to the (theretofore inexistent) cause of Dublin soul music:
—Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.) —Dublin. (He asked another one.) —Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.) —Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.) —Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from. —Say it once, say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.
The guitarist for his sudden new band asks what their name will be, to which Jimmy replies, “The Commitments,” adding for emphasis, “Good, old-fashioned THE.”
The Guts opens years later with a conversation between Jimmy and his now 74-year-old father. Here they discuss the dignity of aging.
—I still wake up with a hard one, said his father.
—Do yeh? Said Jimmy.
Don’t blush, he told himself. Don’t blush.
—Every mornin’, said Jimmy Sr. —Includin’ Sundays.
—That’s great. Well done.
Such conversations in fiction are often unbelievable precisely because of the simultaneous sadness, tenderness, awkwardness, and pride necessary to achieve authenticity. And yet not only does Doyle nail such exchanges, but he does so seemingly on every other page. Faced with these literary landmines, Doyle confidently tap-dances across the minefield, always arriving unscathed.
—I know, he said.—You’re my son an’ all. So it’s a strange thing to be tellin’ yeh an’ it isn’t even dark outside. I wouldn’t have told yeh twenty years ago. I wouldn’t’ve dreamt of it. But what’re yeh now? You’re wha’? Forty-seven?
—Well then, I thought I’d let yeh know, said Jimmy Sr.—I noticed yeh grunted there when you were sittin’ down. An’ there’s a lot more of your forehead on view than there used to be. Happens to us all. It’s desperate. Men are hit particularly bad. So, but. It isn’t all bad, is what I’m tryin’ to say. Father to son, like.
The charm of his characters is that such moments never descend into maudlin indulgence.
—But tell us, said Jimmy. Wha’ do yeh do with your hard one?
—You’re missin’ the point, son. That’s a different conversation. An’ I don’t think it’s one we’ll ever be havin’.
As the reader soon learns, Jimmy has bowel cancer, and the novel revisits an area Doyle explored previously in The Van: what it means to be a man at middle age, with life chiseling away at previous points of masculine pride. In that novel, Jimmy Sr. endures a painful midlife crisis triggered by the loss of his job. (The ebbs and flows of Ireland’s economy are forces no less powerful than gravity in Doyle’s work.) Jimmy Sr. tries to sustain some measure of self-respect, and the respect of his family, even as his identity as breadwinner and “man of the house” slips away. The Van tracks how he fills empty, emotionally paralyzing days, and how he copes with the small setbacks: Christmas gifts that cannot be purchased, home improvements that cannot be made, and pints with “the guys” that cannot be bought. It explores how he rediscovers his identity through the start of a small business (a chipper van), and how he overcorrects in the worst ways and crashes back down to Earth.
And so Jimmy Sr.’s revelation of erectile function in The Guts is a gentle way of turning the page, so to speak, on the previous novel, while keeping the subject alive for the next generation. His son, here the central character, faces the same issues, but from a different angle. In a moment of financial panic, Jimmy sold his shares of the Internet music company that he founded. Reduced in rank to that of “employee,” it’s only through self-talk that he can make it through the workday; he is now vulnerable to the company’s difficulties, but powerless to lead it to fiscal security. The resulting feeling of impotence isn’t helped by his new identity as “cancer patient,” which comes with it the role as an object of pity.
Freud once observed that “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” How many men’s acts of self-immolation are the result of too much of one and not enough of the other, or vice-versa? Part of human frailty is the inability to see clearly the balance of our scales, and to over- or under-correct, or to blame one when the other is at fault.
Jimmy Rabbitte is not immune to this. When he meets an old friend unexpectedly—Imelda Quirke, the attractive backup vocalist first introduced in The Commitments—and she shows interest in him, he feels a spark of life and a renewed sense of manliness, however misguided and despite a happy home life and a wife he adores. Consider his reaction to a surreptitious text message from Imelda:
And one from Imelda. Whenll I see u agen? 2 many precious moments. Oh Christ. What had he fuckin’ done? But he knew what had happened. She’d written the first bit, recognized the lyric – the Three Degrees, 1974 – and she’d written the rest of it. For the laugh. It wouldn’t be a bad song for the funeral, now that he thought of it.
The joy and the fear and the exhilaration of it all seem to satisfy some part of him hollowed by middle age. He later thinks of the “two women” who love him, and immediately corrects himself. But such contradictions, and the tiny wars waged within our minds, are Doyle specialties, and those contradictions apply not only to love, but also to family. With pleasure comes panic as our children come of age—panic not at what our progeny will do, but what their looming adulthood will do to us.
He sat up a bit. Don’t fuckin’ groan. He leaned out and patted Marv’s shoulder. Marv didn’t move, didn’t swerve out of reach. That was good. The shoulder felt big, hard; it belonged to a man.
That was the problem.
That was the thrill.
In Paula Spencer, the title character suffers similar interior blows over her failure as a mother, the ever-present threat of a relapse into full-blown alcoholism, and the prospect of an empty nest.
There’s no energy in her. Nothing in her legs. Just pain. Ache. The thing the drink gets down to. But the drink is only part of it. She’s coped well with the drink. She wants a drink. She doesn’t want a drink. She doesn’t want a drink. She fights it. She wins. She’s proud of that. She’s pleased. She’ll keep going. She knows she will. But sometimes she wakes up, knowing the one thing. She’s alone.
Though its plot chiefly concerns a frightening cancer diagnosis and treatment, The Guts is never quite as melancholy as The Van, which is, essentially, about unemployment and a food truck. (For what it’s worth, The Guts is practically a Douglas-Adams-style romp compared to Paula Spencer.) This irony exists in part because, although both are good men, Jimmy Rabbitte is simply smarter than his father, and more artful when dealing with the pressures of life, whether it’s paying the bills in a lagging economy or weighing the cost of marital infidelity. Readers of The Van are compelled to will Jimmy Sr. along as he muddles through his midlife crisis, understanding full well that he could, at any moment, doom himself with a wrong decision. The Guts, meanwhile, offers the reader a degree of permission to relax and see how the younger Jimmy pulls it off.
It is a testament to Doyle’s influence on popular culture that many people, having never heard of the book or seen the film, think “The Commitments” were an actual band (beyond the soundtrack and tribute group). Certainly Jimmy Rabbitte would love that, and in a subplot of The Guts art imitates life after life imitated art, when Jimmy forms a fictional band that everyone remembers as having been real.
For its part, music unifies Doyle’s work. It’s not just Jimmy Rabbitte, the music-expert-turned-music-producer. Elsewhere, Paula Spencer, in attempting to rebuild her life, works as a housekeeper and office cleaner. In a particularly heart-wrenching chapter, she takes a job on the stadium cleaning crew at a White Stripes concert. The scene is a methodical grinding-away of her pride, and yet also a demonstration of her personal resolve. The White Stripes’ music later becomes a fixed point connecting her to the world, and allowing her to catch up slowly after so many years lost in a bottle. (“If she had a Walkman,” she later thinks, “she’d listen to Van Morrison or Deep Purple. Or the White Stripes.”)
The spiritual power of music is ever present in The Guts, best illustrated in a subversive scene in which Jimmy introduces his children to vinyl records.
He took one of the records from its sleeve and showed it to Marvin.
Marvin put his hand out and Jimmy let him take the vinyl. Marvin held it exactly as he should have. There was religion in the kitchen. A Lion King moment. The other three had seen Marvin, how he’d held the little disc at its sides. They copied him. Jimmy let them.
—Body of Christ, he said, as he handed Mahalia hers.
Doyle employs family levity with laser-guided precision. It is the balm that allows the reader and the characters to withstand plots teeming with the challenges of life, poor decisions, and accompanying atonements. In The Snapper, the second of the Barrytown novels, Jimmy Sr.’s 19-year-old daughter learns that she’s pregnant.
Though faced with the sudden reordering of the family and unexpected shifting of life—of new mothers and grandparents, of bodies changing due to pregnancy, of friends lost and town gossip—the Rabbittes endure. The reason is simple: they are a family. Prone to missteps, yes, and filled with foibles, but with an underpinning of love and laughter. My favorite illustration of this is when Jimmy Sr.’s young daughters find and adopt a puppy.
—What’re yes goin’ to call him? Jimmy Sr asked.
—Wha’ abou’ Larry Gogan? Said Jimmy Sr.
He looked across at Jimmy Jr, but Jimmy Jr. didn’t know he was being slagged.
—That’s stupid, said Linda.
—It’s thick, said Tracy.
—No, it’s not, said Jimmy Sr.—Listen, How many—?
—Call him Anthrax, said Jimmy Jr.
—They will not, said Veronica.
—Look it, said Jimmy Sr when he’d stopped laughing. —If yis call him King or Sultan or somethin’ like tha’ an’ yis shout ou’ his name half the dogs in Barrytown’ll come runnin’ at yis; d’yeh see? But if yis call him Larry Gogan he’s the only one that’ll come to yes cos there’s not all tha’ many dogs called Larry Gogan as far as I know.
—Your name’s Larrygogan, Tracy told the pop.
Larrygogan didn’t look all that impressed.
Doyle’s growth as a writer has been so pronounced over the course of the Barrytown series and Paula Spencer novels that reading his work is like watching the basketball career of Michael Jordan—from first learning to dribble to earning his sixth MVP—all in the span of a single game. The Commitments was a great book and a demonstration of talent. The Van was the work of a master. Paula Spencer was the dazzling work of a genius. As for The Guts, it is the continued promise of Dublin soul, and reason enough to book a flight and visit an Irish bookstore.