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.
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.