The Guts, by Roddy Doyle
Reviewed by Gabriel Byrne
They are not politically engaged, nor do they articulate the greater questions of life or the betrayals of church or State, neither are they anguished nor helpless though they are the victims of a cruel political system which often leaves them without a voice and powerless. Life is accepted as it is, or told to “fuck off”.
Doyle is never patronising or condescending (something he has been unfairly accused of in the past). There is always compassion. Jimmy is a sympathetic hero. Doyle allows us to understand him in all his contradictory humanity: the father’s tenderness; the ambitious businessman; the scared cancer patient; the unfaithful spouse.
The writing is never pedantic, there are no showy-offy bits to remind the reader that we are in the presence of a great writer. If he were a footballer, he might be Paul Scholes, who possessed an uncanny instinct to be exactly where he needed to be, and who could ghost into the opposing penalty box and wreak havoc.
It is a style as simple, functional and as admirable as a Shaker chair. This simplicity of style allows us to concentrate fully on character and story. Big emotions don’t come from big words or complicated syntax. Doyle draws us in by what is left unsaid, allowing imagination to fill the gaps. Good writing, like good acting, is nine-tenths below the surface. Even if you are unfamiliar with the music of Dublinese, the dialogue sounds natural and true to the ear. The words are subsumed into the story, words that are funny in their very sound and full of the music of profanity.
So. There will be little here to surprise the reader of the Barrytown trilogy in terms of style. Structurally, the plot is well-conceived but slight, and vital strands of story developed earlier on bafflingly fall away without explanation in the later section. The big final set piece feels predictable thematically. Doyle has delved more deeply and poignantly into male menopausal angst in the short stories collected in Bullfighting and been more daring in the Henry Smart and Paula Spencer and Paddy Clarke novels. Nevertheless, The Guts is hilarious and beautifully observed .
Roddy Doyle is about the same age as Jimmy Rabbitte, and one can’t escape the feeling that he, like Jimmy, is standing Janus-like, looking simultaneously backward and forward, yet very much alive to the present moment.
Ultimately, reading The Guts is a little like seeing a band one has loved re-form: there they are, balding or ponytailed, beer-bellied or wizened, ghosts of who they once were, singing the old songs. Even though we might be dancing in the dark, it is comforting to know we are all facing the music together.
Gabriel Byrne is an actor, director, producer and writer. His credits include roles in Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects and the HBO series, In Treatment.