Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Commitments, by Roddy Doyle

Vintage Contemporaries, 1989
165 pp


First of all, I've not yet seen the movie that was made from this book, but now I want to. If the movie is at all true to the book, I know I'm going to love it.

Set in working-class North Dublin, the novel begins with  teens Outspan, Derek and Ray, who have formed a new band called And And And. Only in existence for three days, Outspan and Derek decide they need help with the band's direction and go to music-manager guru Jimmy Rabbitte, who"ate melody Maker and the NME every week and Hot Press every two weeks."  Jimmy "knew his music...knew his stuff alright."  After convincing the two that they really should be doing "Soul. Dublin Soul," because it has both sex and politics, and because their music should be "abou' where you're from an' the sort o' people yeh come from,"  he gets rid of Ray and changes the band's name to The Commitments, with a "Good, old fashioned THE."  An ad for musicians goes in the paper:

"Have you got Soul? If yes, The World's Hardest Working Band is looking for you....Rednecks and Southsiders need not apply."
The band eventually comes together, and the story tracks The Commitments right up to the very edge of success. The group is a mixed bag of musicians and a trio of singers who, with one exception, are learning as they go. The odd man out, so to speak,  is Joey The Lips Fagan, who often goes into religious speak and is   old enough to be their father ("sixteen years younger than B.B. King. And six years younger than James Brown," and  claims to have played for not only James Brown but for a host of others, including playing the "DOO DUH DOO DUH DOO" for the Beatles' "All You Need is Love."   And all along, Jimmy Rabbitte, who isn't a musician,  works tirelessly -- giving the musicians their own nicknames, trying to get and keep them inspired, finding the band its small gigs, publicity and whatever it takes to make a success of this group, but with the combination of egos and other problems, that's not always an easy task.  

The book is mostly dialogue,  in dialect and given without quotation marks, using only  ----- to denote a change in speaker. Mixed in and noted in all caps are song lyrics as well as the transcription of  the instrumental  parts of  a song such as The Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" -- "DONG CADDA DONG CADDA DONG CADDA DONG."  It's a stylistic maneuver that brings a lot of energy to the page and had me playing the songs in my head while reading. (I would have turned on some Motown -- I was that energized,  but I can't read with singing in the background.) The songs are also revamped to fit and unite a Dublin working-class audience, part of Rabbitte's original political vision.

While the book is very short, there's a lot going on here. There is of course the story of the making of the band and the various personalities and conflicts involved after it comes together, and there's both  humor and irony that in more than a couple of spots had me laughing out loud.  I think though, for me, it was all about what Jimmy Rabbitte developed in these teenagers -- which at the very least is a measure of self respect and  a desire to be better than they are -- and the idea that when shit happens, you have to get up, dust your boots off and make things work for yourself.  I'm sure there's much more, but as I'm so fond of saying, I'm an ordinary reader, not a lit major.

Definitely recommendedI feel bad for myself that I'm only starting to realize how many good books I've  missed in the past --  this was certainly one of them!

[definitely keeping this one!]

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