The Guts by Roddy Doyle.
Most American readers first encountered Dublin’s Roddy Doyle via either The Commitments, his wonderful 1987 novel about an Irish soul band that never really got off the ground or, in the following years, the story of the working-class families that populated his Barrytown Trilogy – resilient, funny, loving moms and dads and teenagers and grandfathers that faced life’s battles and triumphs and ups and downs in the namesake neighborhood in the city’s tough north side.
These novels announced Doyle, 55, as a major presence on the Irish literary scene, and at just the right time: as his star ascended, movies were made from several of the books and he explored darker material such as 2006’s harrowing Paula Spencer, as well as lighter stuff in the form of books for children and young adults, the Celtic tiger roared, house prices in the country soared, people began moving to Ireland, for the first time, more often than they departed, and everyone had money to burn and the expectation that the bad times would never end.
As people got rich, property became stupendously expensive and Ireland became cool, Doyle became an emblematic part of its cultural resurgence, right there along with U2 and Frank McCourt and the Coors and Riverdance. Doyle grew, in those heady days of the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s, into one of Ireland’s most revered exports, the upbeat tone of much of his work matching the good times that, we were all sure, would go on forever.
The new The Guts, published in the United States this month, tells at once a similar tale to The Commitments and the Barrytown books, and a very different one. The time is the present, and former Commitments manager Jimmy Rabbitte is 47, his family boisterous and large, his tenuous income now derived from promoting old/obscure/broken up/reforming Irish trad and prog and punk bands. He’s also facing possible death from bowel cancer, which, in the book’s opening scene, he struggles to tell his father about as they have a pint one afternoon.
The Guts sets these familiar folks down in the modern urban Dublin world of reduced incomes, Facebook, promoting bands on youtube, Cougar Town on television, and constant worry about how much worse the economy will get; in one telling scene, Jimmy and his irascible, adorable wife Aoife discuss their former next door neighbors, who left in the middle of he night because they could no longer pay their rent.
The brilliance of this book – and it is brilliant, and tender, and laugh-out-loud funny, and tough and unsentimental – is that Doyle seems to have kept the best aspects of the Commitments tale, the examinations of blue-collar Irish lives of his visits to Barrytown, and his dialogue-heavy, sharply observed style and fashioned them onto a story that feels absolutely real and of the moment. Jimmy Rabbitte may be the book’s center, but he’s no hero – he can be difficult and distant from his family, he screws up often, and about halfway through the book he does something absolutely indefensible. He’s just a man, easy to love but not always to like, trying to keep his family’s financial head above water and face his impending mortality (and the effects of chemotherapy treatments, which are described in gruesome detail) while staying in love with rock ‘n’ roll and coming with new product to keep the company he founded with Aoife going.
And make no mistake, The Guts is a rock ‘n’ roll book: Jimmy’s son Marvin’s roots/blues/rock band, Moanin’ At Midnight, factors heavily (and ingenuously) in the plot, and much of the book is set at an Irish rock festival, and captures the heady rush of being part of such an event and encountering possibly life-changing (or, at least, life-affirming) music for the first time.
The Guts feels like a summation, like Doyle is saying here, this is what I can still do, and these are the sort of people that I care about the most. They may suffer, they may be tested and go through times of trouble and worry and hardship, but they go through them together, and the bonds of family and hope – burdened and stretched by money and health worries, a gadget-heavy world that seems as though it long ago removed real intimacy, bad choices, age, and festering resentments and misunderstandings – may bend, but they do not break.
This is a wonderful book, one that anyone who loves Ireland, rock ‘n’ roll in general (and shouty punk rock in particular), and Roddy Doyle will embrace. If I had the money, I would have bought a dozen copies and handed them out to family and friends as Christmas presents and said here – you have to read this: it will have you laughing and crying and wanting to go back and check out your old blues and punk and trad Irish records, and when you are done reading you will find yourself calling up your mom or your sister or your dad or your grandma (or all of the above) and telling them that you love them.