Book review: The Guts, By Roddy Doyle

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

Patricia Craig
Tuesday 06 August 2013 17:12 BST
Authentic urban tones: Roddy Doyle
Authentic urban tones: Roddy Doyle

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.

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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

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