The Guts, by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 336 pages
It is more than 25 years since the publication of The Commitments (1987), Roddy Doyle’s best-selling novel about the fictional Dublin soul band, its manager Jimmy Rabbitte and his family. The book, which was filmed in 1991, has been turned into a musical that opens in London’s West End next month, so it may be that the Rabbittes’ star is rising once again. But if you are not already a fan of the Rabbittes, you might struggle with The Guts, Doyle’s latest addition to the saga, which once more features the feckless, lovable crew, who provide a prism through which to view contemporary Dublin.
Life is slowing down and darkening for the once-vibrant, music-mad Jimmy Rabbitte. Now 47, he is married to Aoife and the father of four scantly characterised kids: Mahalia, Jimmy Jr, Brian and Marvin. As the novel opens, he’s in the pub with his father, informing him he has cancer.
Doyle is renowned for his pitch-perfect dialogue, so the conversation between the two men wanders naturalistically between a discussion of Facebook (“It’s like a club but yeh have your own room, for the people yeh want to meet. Except there’s no room and yeh meet no one”) and cougars (“This Cougar Town thing is abou’ oul’ ones chasin’ after young lads?”) before getting to the painful point. “– Jesus, son. – Yeah. – Wha’ kind? – Bowel. – Bad. – Could be worse. – Could it? – So they say.” (As is Doyle’s style, dialogue stretches laconically all down the page, marked off by long dashes.)
This established, Doyle is in no hurry to get on with anything like a plot. Jimmy determines to contact long-lost family members with the news, and his fitful pursuit of Les, his estranged brother now living in England, has a wisp of interest in it. The first half of the book is mostly taken up with chemo, Christmas and chat. Doyle deftly evokes the depressed mood as Ireland reverts to the doldrums after its brief Celtic Tiger heyday, summed up in property prices: the ordinary houses that were “reasonable at the time, ludicrously expensive for a few years and probably worth fuck all now”.
Jimmy has moved with the times when it comes to his beloved music; he now runs kelticpunk.com, to promote the acts of his youth, but much to his chagrin it’s the traditional “diddley-eye” music he hates that proves the biggest seller – though in the new internet age, “biggest” is relative. “Kids didn’t buy the vital musical moments they’d be bringing with them for the rest of their poxy lives; they expected them all for nothing. And their parents were beginning to share the attitude. Mums wearing Uggs, dads in skinny jeans – they were stealing their music now as well.” It’s bad news when you have a roster of aggressive middle-aged punks demanding to know “why more than three hundred thousand YouTube hits had produced less than two thousand sales”.
A plot slowly starts to take shape around a bid to exploit the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, last held in 1932. Jimmy convinces his co-owner Noeleen that an album of newly discovered music from that year would be a big seller: “This is the Catholic Church, remember. They’ll get a crowd.” Alan Lomax-style, he begins to track down the Irish blues, but a lack of original material means a bit of cheating is in order.
Doyle rarely describes settings or delineates character, which is tricky for anyone without a detailed memory of the Rabbittes from The Barrytown Trilogy – The Commitments, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991). Legendary temptress Imelda Quirke briefly reappears but her appeal is unexplained. In a book largely about male friendship, the females seem shadowy. And while Doyle is adept at suggesting the vast hinterlands of meaning and repression behind ordinary turns of phrase, conversations largely consisting of “Howyeh?” and the responses “Grand” or “Shite” according to circumstance, are hard to get excited about.
The book has an abundant charm, and under a shambolic surface is surely meticulously planned and structured. But Jimmy’s cancer is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card into unearned sentimentality. The many apt musical references will make fortysomethings smile and nod nostalgically, and Jimmy himself is an alert presence, but the other characters lack sparkle. The Rabbittes rarely have a conversation of any intellectual depth, and anyone who inconveniences them even slightly is instantly designated the unlovely C-word. Another great Dubliner, James Joyce, also focused on the dull quotidian round of an ordinary citizen. You’d have to conclude that the inner life of 1904 was considerably richer than anything going on almost 110 years later.
But against the odds, Doyle pulls it all together as the novel builds to a climax at an Irish rock festival. Over mud, tents, music, magic mushrooms and beer, our middle-aged musos recover their youthful zest. Outspan, a founding member of the original Commitments and a cancer sufferer himself, is toting an oxygen cylinder. In a last, glorious scene, as the Cure begin to play, he is hoisted aloft by the crowd, still in his inflatable armchair, and sent bouncing towards the stage, arm over arm, clutching his oxygen. The Guts is a bit like a music festival: mostly fun, sometimes banal, sometimes just a bit tedious, but finally worth it for such moments of sheer, exhilarating glee.