[14 February 2014]
Sadly, for those more patriotic American book-lovers, the late and greatly terse Elmore Leonard’s dictum that writers should “leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” is today probably followed most diligently by an Irishman. Roddy Doyle is the kind of Irishman whose cultural antennae is tuned westward, to American rhythms and speed. While his books are brimful with the sounds and textures of his native Dublin, they also adhere diligently to Leonard’s rule. You may have read all of Doyle’s books and you would have just about as much idea of how his characters’ homes looked or what their defining physical characteristics were as if you hadn’t cracked one of them.
For Doyle, it’s all about the voice. Fortunately, his is a powerful instrument and he can easily get by just letting it blow. In The Guts, the voice is that of Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., the haplessly hardworking onetime band manager from The Commitments. When the novel starts, Jimmy’s having a pint with his dad, Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., (star of Doyle’s The Snapper) and delivering some news: He has bowel cancer and he hasn’t told anybody else yet.
Jimmy warms up to it, circling around in the way that men in northern climes do, talking about Facebook and getting erections and the idiot in the Arsenal jersey, before blurting out the deathly truth like a packet of vomit. It’s a beautiful scene, terse and circuitous at the same time. Pages’ worth of introspection are wedged into the spaces between Doyle’s em-dashed scatter of conversation. Eventually Jimmy will get around to thinking about death, but there’s a lot of life to be gotten through first.
There’s cancer, too. As The Guts expertly shows, having cancer isn’t just a bad day and a truckload of miserable side effects, it’s work. Jimmy has barely delivered the news to his wife, Aoife, before he realizes how many more people he has to tell. Not only that, he has to tell them quickly, so that nobody hears it from somebody first and feels slighted. The rumbling bustle of humanity keeps him from the expected staged arc of emotions: anger, denial, and the like.
When Jimmy starts thinking about what’s in store for him, the morbidity comes up like a dark tide. It’s these continual shocks that keep The Guts off-kilter through a good two-thirds of its slightly baggy length. They sustain the narrative, as in the scene when Jimmy is listening to his children banging about upstairs and trying to decide when to tell Aoife:
It was running taps and the toilet flushing for about an hour, and quiet shouts, and a loud thump that must have been Marvin giving young Jimmy a a dig or young Jimmy giving Marvin a dig. He hadn’t seen either of them all night but the house was full of them. And he could hear Mahalia singing. He sat in the dark and listened to the life above him.
I’ll miss this.
He hadn’t felt it coming and he got rid of it quickly.
Jimmy’s reflexive fear of sentiment is a powerful force in the book, and it works both for and against what Doyle is trying to achieve. In refusing to turn Jimmy into some sad, caterwauling victim baying at the moon, Doyle keeps the book from being just another sickness story. It’s Jimmy’s story through and through. Within a few dozen pages, he has pushed on past the cancer and is concerned more with the other matters that will not wait; family, the bills, what to do about that old female friend he just ran into who seems keen. Most problematic is work at the small excavatory Irish music site he started (“Finding old bands and finding the people who loved them”) whose fortunes were as bitterly unforgiving as any 21st century creative enterprise.
But most of Jimmy is buried so deep, it’s hard for the novel to get at it. His narration allows the occasional interjection of honest feeling (“He actually loved the job”). But the guts of The Guts are Doyle’s patented sprawl of raggle-taggle conversation, internal and external. This is a book that just hoofs along larkishly, its Jimmy expecting nothing much out of life but the occasional joys of his steadfastly middle-class Dublin life.
After a time, though, Doyle appears to have dug his narrator too deep into a foxhole. It’s one thing for Jimmy to refuse to admit to his family and occasional friend (the comic difficulty of middle-aged men making and keeping friends is one of the book’s better twists) how he’s feeling, but another to keep it from the reader. This is repression on a whole new scale, where there are whole stretches of the book that go by without the reader being able to quite discern where Jimmy’s head is at, even though he’s been talking at you the entire time.
Doyle drops in hints of the old music-loving Jimmy here and there, noting him reading a Jah Wobble or Patti Smith autobiography before bed, or coming out with a suddenly vehement opinion on Supertramp. But often it’s as though the take-no-prisoners musical pirate of The Commitments has disappeared entirely inside the stolid home-owning family man he has become, only to surface at dramatically convenient times.
This would have proved less of a problem for the novel had Doyle gone with a different ending. Where the book works best is in its smaller moments, those corner bits of talk caught while having a coffee or a pint or even just Jimmy thinking to himself. Whenever it goes bigger, the plot has difficulty convincing. This is particularly true with the Nick Hornby-ish developments later on that resurrect the old Jimmy for some classic management skullduggery and having a quietly middle-aged epiphany at an outdoor rock festival.
It’s a frustrating turn of events. There are flashes in the book of Doyle’s uncompromising greatness, delivering his comedy not just with a smile but a slap. Take the moment when Jimmy listens to a song and considers its greatness:
It had none of the Paddy, none of the dishonesty at the core of every Irish song Jimmy had ever heard, except ‘Teenage Kicks’ and maybe ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’.
This isn’t to say that The Guts, for all its fierce hilarity and chatter and hatred of sentimental shite, isn’t an honest novel. But it is never quite honest enough with itself as Jimmy would have wanted it to be.