Review: The Guts, By Roddy Doyle

It is 26 years since Roddy Doyle introduced us to Jimmy Rabbitte. Now he's back with some old friends, but time has moved on for all of them

The plot of Roddy Doyle's new novel is surely an in-joke by the author against himself. The hero of The Guts makes a living from digging up old bands, dusting them off, and selling them anew to their ageing fans via the internet. The website, www.kelticpunk .com, was all his idea, but he sold it a few years ago to a woman younger than him, now his boss, whom he really likes, or can't stand, he's not quite sure. But the website doesn't just repeat past artistic glories; it revives them and gives them a new lease on life. Sometimes the bands even write new material.

The hero of this paean to Irishness and nostalgia is of course Jimmy Rabbitte, whom we met in Doyle's first novel, The Commitments, and who was recently resurrected in a West End musical. Somehow, 26 years after that novel was published, the intense young manager of "the world's hardest working band" has become a 47-year-old and acquired a saintly wife and four children. They affectionately call his website oldshite.com.

The other thing about our middle-aged hero is that he has just been diagnosed with bowel cancer, and it's a pretty grown-up Jimmy who opens the novel, trying to break the news to his dad (Jimmy), his wife Aoife and his children (Mahalia, Brian, Marvin and, of course, Jimmy). The deadpan humour that always marked out Doyle's writing is as spot on as ever, as Jimmy talks to his brother Darren:

"Where are yeh?

– Liffey Valley.

– Hate tha'.

– Give me cancer any day, said Darren

– I'm a lucky man"

This is a stand-alone novel, as were all the books in the Barrytown trilogy, and it would work for anyone who had somehow managed not to know about The Commitments. Doyle avoids the trap of wallowing in nostalgia, but is kind enough to throw his own ageing fans the odd bone from his early stuff. (Although a side story featuring the still-lovely Imelda Quirke feels disappointingly predictable, a bit like when a band waits for the encore to dash off their one big hit.) There's a neat summary of Ireland's boom and bust, as Jimmy senior reminisces about his chip van, from the novel The Van:

"– An' it was a bit of a disaster, tha'. But I was never unemployed again – after Italia '90. I wouldn't let myself be …. Because – an' this is true. We felt great about ourselves. For years after. An' tha' only changed a few years back. Now we're useless … again."

The latter ellipsis, by the way, is in place of a Very Rude Word that we don't like to use in this newspaper. There are lots of those words, in case you've forgotten that about the Rabbittes. It's worth remembering that Doyle was doing this stuff six years before Irvine Welsh did it – only in Scottish vernacular – in Trainspotting in 1993. It's also worth remembering that Ireland has recovered from a recession, turned into a Celtic tiger and then plunged back into recession in the time since we first met Jimmy Rabbitte. But only if you want to feel really old.

The Guts lacks the energy and passion of The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van, and without them the crazy dialogue can be infuriating. And there is a lot of dialogue. In an exchange such as this, it's impossible to know who is talking, especially when most of the characters are called Jimmy:

"– It wasn't so bad, so?

– No, said Jimmy. – No.

– Great.

– Not so far anyway.

– Fingers crossed so.

– Yeah, said Jimmy. – Yeah. When were yeh born?

– Jesus, said his da. 1941. I think. Yeah, 1941. Why?"

What it has instead is a melancholy wisdom, and some moments of heart-breaking poignancy. Jimmy runs into The Commitments' ginger guitarist Liam "Outspan" Foster in the oncology ward, and it's clear that his prognosis is not good. They start to talk about other members of the band:

"– An' he was the last one tha' called me Outspan.

Another wait.

– An' now no one even knows wha' Outspan means.

The lift door – there was only the one – slid slowly open."

There is a gloriously chaotic crescendo, in which Jimmy, his long-lost brother and a past-his-best drummer take a struggling Outspan to a rock festival where Jimmy's son Marvin is pretending to be Bulgarian to play a song supposedly from 1932. But I'm not sure that new readers will fall in love with The Guts in the same way Jimmy's young ones do with his fictional rockers. For Doyle groupies, however, there's nothing like old shite to make you feel at once old, wistful, and slightly superior. I predict a No 1 hit.

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