The Guts, by Roddy Doyle
Reviewed by Gabriel Byrne
Rereading The Commitments (published all of 25 years ago), I found the novel has lost none of its humour and joyful hope. It hasn’t dated, unlike the film by Alan Parker (which seems by comparison now slow and heavy-handed). Since then Roddy Doyle has gone on to prove himself one of the greatest of Irish writers.
Things were tough back in the 1980s when The Commitments appeared. There was a recession; politicians were betraying those they were meant to serve; the banks and the church were about their nefarious doings. A gangster called Haughey was telling the country to tighten its belt; emigration was often the only choice for the young; abortion was illegal. Apathy or repressed anger had taken hold. Plus ça bleedin’ change.
In The Guts, Doyle turns once more to those themes he has always written about so singularly: love and the family. Doyle has never written anything that is not about love and its transformational power. It is all that matters, ultimately, to love and be loved. Along with laughter, it keeps the darkness at bay. Optimism and hope, triumph over despair. The family, dysfunctional and chaotic though it may be, bestows strength and courage.
The Guts is also a return visit to Barrytown, Jimmy Rabbitte jnr and other well-loved characters. Part of the novel’s charm is their familiarity, and our own nostalgia for their lives, as we encountered them all those years ago. We know they must have changed, yet we want to believe, illogically, that they haven’t, and that the past has remained as we remember it.
But the shadows of mortality are lengthening. The grim reaper whistles, biding his time. Death is becoming real.
As in Bullfighting, Doyle’s collection of stories where the protagonists are middle-aged men dealing with loss , caught between the future and the past, the world has shifted, cold winds are blowing, and the certainties of youth are fading or changing shape.
Jimmy Rabbitte, the wish-fulfilling Brian Epstein who put the Commitments band together, is now 47. He has been diagnosed with bowel cancer, is married to the lovely Aoife, has four kids and a dog-in-law, yet life, as my father used to say, catches up with us all.
It has caught up with his mate Outspan (the encounter with Jimmy is one of the book’s most moving moments) and with the irresistibly sexy Imelda Quirke. Jimmy, despite his illness, is still ambitious. His job now is retreading Celtic rock bands from the 1960s and flogging their mortifying music on the internet.
It is easy to miss how many plates Doyle is spinning effortlessly in the air. As in The Commitments there is little description or exposition. The dialogue, like music, carries the narrative compellingly forward: a world of meaning in the half-spoken or the unspoken, in a “yeah”, a “but” or a “look it”; the detached, objective narrator; Jimmy’s inner monologues; the smallest observations illuminating a character (Jimmy snr hoists his trousers with a finger in the belt loop. Later Jimmy jnr does the same and laments the onset of geezerliness); characters struggle on optimistically despite failure, with something like heroism.