Jonathan Cape, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Book review: The Guts, By Roddy Doyle

Private and public crises fail to sink the middle-aged comeback kids of Dublin's Northside

This is a novel about cancer. It is bright, jokey, wry and robust, in Roddy Doyle's accustomed "Barrytown" manner. It features Jimmy Rabbitte, last encountered in a prominent role in The Commitments of 1987, when he managed a group of young ex-schoolmates and knocked it into souped-up shape.

Get money off this title at the Independent bookshop

Jimmy has moved a step upwards from those Barrytown days and now inhabits a middle-class enclave of three-bedroomed houses with gardens. He has an understanding wife, Aoife, and four children, two named after soul singers. Like many of his neighbours, Jimmy has custody of a dog, first a "yapper" to accord with the bourgeois locality, and then a more appropriate pet, in Rabbitte family terms, named Messi. "The Guts" may sound like some especially rough and colourful quarter of Dublin, but in fact it refers to Jimmy's afflicted innards. It also denotes an attitude of resilience, of gritted teeth and ferocious buoyancy. "Oh God," says the nurse encountering Jimmy in the course of his cancer treatment, "a character."

They are all characters in Roddy Doyle's book: Northside Dubliners skilled in self-assertion and catchphrase repartee. As often pointed out, the author captures the authentic tones of a late 20th-century, urban working-class, pub- and housing-estate culture, all Howyeh and Wha' d'you mean? and shite and fuck. If this Irish vernacular lacks the inventiveness of something like John O'Connor's 1948 novel Come Day – Go Day, it nevertheless works to drive the narrative forward and establish an emphatic atmosphere. In a sense, it takes the place of a plot. The "Barrytown" novels in particular - all reaction and no reflection - have a theme and a storyline, generally to do with vim and enterprise, but don't go in for any great intricacies of plot-making.

During the 1990s, Doyle's fictional impulse went into a darker area, with - for example – The Woman Who Walked into Doors (violence and domestic abuse). Then his ambitious "Last Roundup" trilogy (2002-10) reversed his earliest narrative tendency, by incorporating what you might call an excess of plot. Culminating in The Dead Republic, this trilogy veers off the rails in the end - though not before it has had a good deal to say, some of it original and illuminating, about the course of Irish history throughout the 20th century and beyond. From the GPO during the Easter Rising of 1916, through the War of Independence and the Civil War, via de Valera's version of the country and every variety of Republican aspiration up to the present, Doyle propels his Dublin-born hero Henry Smart from one exorbitant and fantastical situation to another. It's Roddy Doyle the social critic giving free rein to his runaway instincts.

Of course, social criticism has always been a fundamental part of this author's repertoire. Now, with The Guts, it is back in the line of "plain people" ribaldry and wisecrack. The present-day Rabbitte, aged 47, has his own view of middle-class Ireland: "The country they created and then fucked up." In the distant past, religion, processions, "a raft o' fuckin' cardinals": all the lies and jobbery and the different forms of repression. De Valera's "sentimental shite" pasted over a place of poverty and low expectation and endemic sexual abuse.

The disgraced church held on, pushing Catholic newspapers through people's letterboxes in a vain attempt to keep them in line. All followed – eventually – by the years of economic euphoria, recalled by Jimmy's father Jimmy Senior (protagonist of The Van in 1991), as a time when "We felt great about ourselves… An' tha' only changed a few years back. Now," he adds glumly, "we're useless cunts again."

The Celtic Tiger has been hunted to extinction, houses are in danger of being repossessed, businesses are failing all over the place. People wander around empty spaces where, until recently, dozens of employees made a satisfactory living. As for Jimmy (Junior), "The times had caught up with him." He has had to sell his music business to a woman called Noeleen (though he stays on as a partner).

Noeleen is not making a tremendous success of it either, so the time has come to engage in a bit of creative fakery. This involves the resurrection of songs supposedly recorded during the year of the Eucharistic Congress (1932), and loaded with hidden meanings inimical to the spirit of Holy Catholic Ireland. It makes a way of upholding an inspiriting kind of defiance. "The music... They could tell the priests an' the politicians tha' they'd do whatever seemed natural an' they wouldn't be askin' for permission. Inside the song. In Ireland, in 1932." It's a nice idea.

A pretend Bulgarian Boy Band (actually run by Jimmy's teenage son Marvin); the reunion of a couple of members of the old Commitments group, including Outspan Foster; a spot of therapeutic adultery; communication re-established with a long-lost brother; domestic upsets (the dog eating a pair of knickers); lessons in trumpet-playing: all these come into the picture. All are punctuated by chemotherapy sessions and their dire effects: "Fuck the nausea." And all surrounded by the trappings of modern life: wheelie bins, tracksuit bottoms, Sat-Nav, SuperValu bags, iPads, YouTube, Wikipedia, schoolchildren drunk on vodka in the middle of the day.

The Guts proceeds with gusto towards its gloriously ramshackle, set-piece finale, in which four oul' lads – three either cured or ongoing cancer patients – attend a rock festival in the Irish countryside and revel in the mud and booze and noise and crowds of young women, amazingly "dressed for the clubs in the middle of a field". And the music: "Fuckin' brilliant." It's all about cocking a snook at age, illness, weakness, temperance and decorum. Doyle pulls it off - just.

There are moments when his, and his characters', exasperation with sentimental shite ("it was fuckin' everywhere") gives way to actual sentimental shite: "the sadness, the grief, had never left. Like losing the kids, them growing up and away from him, one by one". But such lapses are rare, amid the whole demotic, chaotic onrush of Dublin life and inimitable carry-on.

Roddy Doyle has made a name for himself with his immense skill and control of such material, and if some readers might tend to baulk at incessant high jinks, low idiom and high morale – "It's so fuckin' Irish but, isn't it?" – one imagines that the author would take it, along with Jimmy Rabbitte, with a shrug of the shoulders. "There you go."

Patricia Craig's family memoir 'A Twisted Root: ancestral entanglements in Ireland' is published by Blackstaff Press

Jonathan Cape, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home