Friday, March 28, 2014

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

Viking, 2014
328 pp

"Music is a great escape." 

I knew going into this novel that the main character here has been diagnosed with bowel cancer, and I wondered how in the heck the author was going to make something funny out of something so normally depressing.  I knew it had to be -- in the first three Barrytown novels (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van), he managed to create often laugh-out-loud humor around some pretty downbeat topics, so I took it for granted that the trend would continue in The Guts.  I was right -- it does, although perhaps not on as big of a scale as the other three.  At the same time, it's not only the humor that attracts me to Roddy Doyle -- it's also his ongoing themes of family, friendship and most especially fatherhood, as well as how his characters fare when they run up against some of life's biggest stumbling blocks.  In The Guts, the author also writes about nostalgia -- which is "always big in a recession."

Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. of The Commitments is back again, now middle-aged at 47. He's married to Aoife and they have four children.  He'd been working as a car salesman, but had hated it and had quit ahead of the recession some "eighteen months later when people stopped buying cars." The economy is bad, and Jimmy's traded selling cars for selling old bands.   To make ends meet and to give in to his passion for music, he and Aoife had started an online business,, reuniting, promoting and selling punk bands of yesteryear, "Like Itunes...But boutique. More personal. Welcomin'. Not just buy or fuck off." He finds the old bands, and also finds fans with money to pay for their music."   At some point, when they noticed that their sales had been slowing to nothing, "before the recession, the crunch, the collapse" they sold three-quarters of the business, allowing them to at least pay off their mortgage. And now Jimmy's been diagnosed with cancer. Although  he spends time pondering what's next in store for him, he is not one to sit idle and be morose -- it's music and family that's always driven him and it is those same two factors  that help keep him going now. His latest venture is putting together an album of music from 1932 to coincide with the Eucharistic Congress that will be held in Dublin for the first time since then, and it's rumored that the pope might even be there. As he says, "People will cryin' for it, remeberin' their parents and grannies talkin' about it."

While one  storyline follows Jimmy's cancer treatments and his off-again/on-again gloom about mortality which have totally shaken him, there are others that make it  not nearly as depressing as I thought it might be.  The chances are high that he'll survive the disease, but surviving the ups and downs of every-day life and the recession might be a different story.  Aside from cancer, this novel is also filled with the kinds of things that anyone might experience in midlife -- loss of income, losing a home to the bank,  the temptations of an extramarital affair, the realization that we're more like our parents than we know, or in general wondering where the old dreams of the past have gone. Yet, I think in this last item is where the book is most meaningful, at least for me -- some of our big dreams may be gone, but by keeping our passions alive, we inspire the love of them in others, and it brings us great joy to see them come alive especially in the people we love most. This becomes very obvious toward the end of the novel, but I won't say how.

In Mr. Doyle's hands, the comedic edge of these serious issues makes the reading a lot less painful, and actually funny. I mean, where else would you laugh at the mention of a pair of purple velour sweats that are called cancer pants? Or lyrics to a song called "Erectional Dysfunction?" And I loved The Electric Picnic -- that whole scene just crackled. In fact, I had a very good time with this book,  although I must say that to me, the energy level of this one was a bit lower than the previous three Rabbitte family novels and some of the situations seemed forced, while some felt  underdeveloped.  However, aside from the funny moments, what I really liked about this book and the others I've read is that  while the author employs humor to take the edge off the serious things, he never lets his readers lose sight of the fact that life can be downright tough. I've also become fond of  the Rabbitte family, who over the last couple of decades have experienced one crisis after another, getting through them with wit, wisdom, love and practicality. The same applies here.

I can without any qualms recommend this book -- you'll get so much more out of it by reading the first three Barrytown novels but it's certainly not a problem if you don't.   I'll most definitely be returning to Roddy Doyle in the very near future.

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