Monday, March 24, 2014

The Van, by Roddy Doyle

Penguin, 1993
originally written 1991
320 pp


Sweet Jaysis, this was a fine book!  In fact, over the course of the last week or two, I've managed to finish all three fine books of Roddy Doyle's original Barrytown Trilogy, in preparation for reading The Guts, which just came out this year. One big thing about these novels that kept me glued to their pages was how the major dilemmas in their lives prompted the characters to move beyond their current troubles,  to have faith in and to take advantage of what ever possibilities might present themselves.  On the lighter side, if a funnier trio of books exist, I haven't yet read them.

When we last saw Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., he was working as a plasterer, but now he's been laid off.  He spends a lot of time at the library, watching TV or taking home books to read. There are other changes as well -- the twins' Sugar Puffs have become Cornflakes, Baby Gina has a stack of videos but they can't afford a new video player, the twins, unlike Darren, wouldn't be going off on a school trip to Scotland this year, this Christmas is leaner than ever, and Jimmy can't even afford to buy ice-cream for Gina.  Even the town has changed -- as Jimmy Sr. notes, "there was money in this town," watching people go by and counting
"fifty-four great-looking young ones going by in only a quarter of an hour; brilliant-looking women now, and all of them dressed beautifully, the height of style; they must have paid fortunes for the stuff they had on them; you could tell."

Most of all, he misses the camraderie from  his local, The Hikers. He does miss the pints, but much more than that, he misses "the lads here, the crack, the laughing."  He'd like to be there more, but "he'd had a family to feed and that," only able to come to his pub about twice a week. As it turns out though, Jimmy's not the only one who's become redundant: his friend Bimbo also gets laid off from his bakery job.  Bimbo eventually buys a decrepit chip van (what we'd call a food truck) with part of his severance pay -- one with no engine and coated inside and out in grease, but to Bimbo, it's all about the potential.  It also just happens to be World Cup time -- so the two roll up their sleeves to get the van cleaned up and usable, so that the crowds coming out of the pub after Ireland plays can buy their burgers, sausages, fish and chips etc.  Ireland's wins, along with the logistical help of Bimbo's wife Maggie, make Bimbo's Burgers -- Today's Chips Today" successful, but working so close together and dealing with all the shite they have to go through begins to test their friendship.

The Van is longer than the previous two novels in this trilogy, structured in three distinct parts, and here we get into a  little more depth re Jimmy Sr.'s character. The laugh-out-loud humor is still there, especially in the pages where they're opening the chip van for business for the first time -- including of all things a fried nappy (158-174 in my copy). [As an aside,  I laughed so much and so loud while reading these pages that my husband, who was busy reading Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, gave me such an evil glare that I had to take my book elsewhere.]  Yet there's a serious side here as well, beyond the relationship between Jimmy Sr. and Bimbo. As just one example, while they're in the van, the local street toughs who have nothing better to do than stone the van and try to wreck it bring out Jimmy's feelings about family, parenting, and how lucky he is that even though his son Leslie's had some problems, he and Veronica were there to help set him straight so that he wouldn't end up like these guys.   And, as in all of the other books in this trilogy, the ending is spot on -- nothing overly sentimental, nothing overly romanticized. 

While I'm not so much into trying to root out deeper meanings found within, leaving that up to more well-read people than myself,  I've had a great time with these novels. They're all highly entertaining, and all of them focus on how these people never give up as long as the possibility of something more might be lurking just around the corner.  I cannot recommend them highly enough. 

an afterthought:
After finishing this novel yesterday, I streamed the movie -- and if ever there was a book so lost in translation from page to screen -- it's this one. I haven't yet seen the other two movies (The Commitments, The Snapper), but so much of what made this book so good was just gone in the movie version. 

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