The Guts

  • By Roddy Doyle
  • Vintage
  • 336 pp.

A rock ‘n’ roll soul wrestles with middle age and mortality.

The Guts

So, Roddy Doyle. Another venerable Irishman with the gift of gab, a fine writer who charmed the hell out of readers with his first novel, The Commitments (1989), a tale of the passion inspired by that rock ‘n’ roll music all the kids seem to like these days, the story of Jimmy Rabbitte, young man on the make in ‘80s Dublin, forming and managing a rhythm and blues band – an Irish soul band, the novel chronicling its rise and fall. Think James Brown meets Van Morrison. The band and the novel shared a key ingredient – soul. As young Jimmy might say, “soul is lifting yourself up, soul is dusting yourself off.”

They made a movie out of it. Did well.

Which brings me to Doyle’s new novel, The Guts. Jimmy Rabbitte’s back and now he’s got the kids, the wife, the dog, the career. And he’s got cancer.

Bloody hell. Another cancer story? Must we?

Apparently, we must. Our lad, good-hearted Jimmy, now 47, has run straight into middle-aged life – cancer, the Irish economic crash, the whole bit. And even while sharing his grim diagnosis with his dear old da, the old music peppers the conversation as it swerves around, on and off topic:

“–It’s true, yeh do. Even tha’ time when I said the Beatles
weren’t as good as the Stones.
–But look it, your mother loves the Beatles.
–She couldn’t give a shite about the Beatles.
–You’re right, said Jimmy Sr. – Truth be fuckin’ told, it
was the Bee Gees tha’ made your mother giddy. The early stuff, yeh know.
–Could be worse.
–It fuckin’ could. So.
Jimmy watched his father brush his thighs with his open hands.
–Wha’ now?
–Chemo, said Jimmy.

I’m a sucker for musical references like that. Work real-life stuff like that into a story, you got me. Doyle and I agree – music can change your life, maybe even save your life.

Readers and writers talk about voice, how some writers have got it, and some don’t. Doyle’s got it – a style that rings true, the ebb and flow of talk, the sudden detours, entries and exits, the uncanny depiction of the cadences and tones of real conversation. To my ear, the reader can hear it. Again, in the same pub:

“–D’yeh know wha’, Father?
–That’s the first time you’ve ever spoken to me like tha’.
Father to son.
–Is tha’ right?
–Fuckin’ yeah.
–You’re not annoyed, are yeh?
–No, I’m not.

But here’s the thing. Maybe some 80 percent of the novel is exactly that – masterful dialogue. On and on. And on. With very little exposition, scene setting. And no chapters, no breaks.

No white space. No chance to catch your psychic breath. That can get you down.

And it does.

Doyle’s narrative style is a kind of throwback to the distant Modernist work of other famous Irish writers you may have heard of. Good on ‘im. But the story doesn’t flow, it jumps in fits and starts, up and down alleyways, prompting the reader to backtrack – tell me again, who’s that character? What’s her story? Oh yeah, I think I’ve got the thread again.

A bit annoying.

The story? Yes, Jimmy’s got cancer, he goes through chemo with a pretty good attitude, but complications arise. Old band mates reappear, a long-lost brother returns, kids deal with their father’s illness. A fake Bulgarian rock band. Long-suffering, loyal wife Aoife stands by her man while Jimmy has an affair as inexplicable as his cancer. But he’s got a crazy scheme. He’s going to sell a million CDs during the upcoming Eucharistic Congress of 2012. First time in Dublin since 1932.

Here, Jimmy touches on the heart of the matter:

“–So, he said.—There’s big religion rollin’ towards us.
–It’s not rock ‘n’ roll.
–Everything’s rock ‘n’ roll.
He’d no idea what that meant.
–It’ll all be back to 1932. People will be cryin’ for it,
rememberin’ their parents and grannies talkin’ about it.
–Faith of Our Fathers.
–Exactly, said Jimmy. – All that shite.”

Everything’s rock ‘n’ roll. How true that is. But maybe not to you.

He goes on, the Irish love affair with America, the love shared by a certain crop of British kids years earlier:

“–I am yeah, he said. – Look it. It’s 1932. If it was
America, it’d be speakeasies and the Great Depression. The archives – for fuck
sake, Noeleen. Jazz, country, prison songs, gospel, the blues. Some o’ the
coolest stuff that was ever recorded. Alan Lomax an’ his da. And your man, the
other archive fella – Harry Smith. There’s box sets. iTunes sells them. We’ll
do the same. We could trace the roots of punk to some whistlin’ bogger in 1932.

–How would you go about it?
–No idea, said Jimmy. – Not yet. I only thought of it this mornin’.”   

Love that.

Jimmy’s surviving, trying to keep that old-time soul alive, keep himself alive. But his passion dissolves into a kind of boys-are-back-in-town ending, a near-cliché, a last hurrah where the old mates fade away like cardboard stand-ins, an ending that misses the beat, clunks like a f**kin’ rock ‘n’ roll cowbell. A cryin’ shame – coulda been grand.

Barry Wightman’s novel Pepperland, a revolutionary, technology, rock-’n-roll love story, was published in 2013. He’s still trying to figure out the chords to old Kinks songs.

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