Charlie Savage review: Roddy Doyle is fluent in north-Dublinese
Roddy Doyle’s character sketches use humour that is never mocking, never overstated
Roddy Doyle: His work involves a difficult balance and at times depth is lost in its pursuit. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty
Charlie Savage once ended up in Wales on Christmas Eve, looking for a Tamagotchi. Dublin was full of the things, but the daughter’s heart was set on a pink one.
This is the kind of man we meet when we open Roddy Doyle’s new title. Charlie is a “type”. He’s a Dub. A decent aul’ skin. Pint drinker. A no-nonsense sort, who might walk into Insomnia and order “a plain black coffee with no messing”. He’s also a father, a grandfather; mad about his family. He even gets a SpongeBob tattoo so his three-year-old grandson won’t have to. This is someone who’s aware of how ridiculous the world can be, but who nonetheless participates in the whole joke.
Irish Independent readers will be familiar with Charlie from his slot in the weekend magazine. Now a year’s worth of these columns is collected in one work.
There’s a knack to this character-sketch style writing. It depends on “on the money” observations and on-point humour. Writing like this is like performing stand-up: make ’em laugh and you can get away with anything.
Doyle knows how to work a crowd. His north-Dublinese is fluent; never mocking, never overstated. He describes a nativity play where his young daughter, playing Mary, arrives onstage and says “Look, Joseph [ . . .] we’re after having a baby boy.” You can hear it, if only faintly, that charming Dublin lilt. Doyle’s humour is subtle. He has an ear for things particular to Irish people that are particularly gas.
And, of course, he knows, or someone knows – his publisher? His agent? A commissioning editor? There’s an appetite for gas Irish types. Take Ross O’Carroll Kelly and his eternally successful “SoCoDu” persona. Or recent queen bee, Aisling, with her country-girl-in-the-big-smoke routine. In a way, Doyle has had north Dublin bagsied ever since his Barrytown trilogy. With Charlie, he’s performing his party piece, trying to get in with the cool kids. So, will we let him sit with us?
It’s worth noting that this isn’t his first rodeo. In 2011, he introduced Two Pints via Facebook. A series of statuses revealed conversations between two men at a bar. Not unlike Charlie and his drinking buddy, they riffed on current events, always maintaining a gruff, detached man-tone. For Aisling, Facebook would prove the perfect medium to grow an audience, but Doyle’s attempt was more like U2 gifting Songs of Innocence to everyone on iTunes. It was nice, but no one asked. Still, Two Pints became two books and a play, the latter proving the most suitable form, since it was literally all dialogue.
Charlie Savage feels like another stab at this idea, but a better one. We get a more complete reading experience. Charlie and his fellow characters are fleshed out. A world is drawn. And the humour feels less cynical because of this.
The thing about humour, though, is it’s a tough gig nowadays. Making ’em laugh might not cut it anymore. Stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby famously “quit comedy” last year, arguing that jokes are inherently damaging, since they cut the story right where we confront pain. I’m not here to investigate whether this is true, but it’s the shift in expectation that’s interesting – what audiences and artists want from their work. We’re in an era of moralism. Artworks are judged more on decorum than entertainment value. These days, to make someone laugh without addressing some sort of issue, is cheap.
So, Doyle plays ball. He represents. Charlie’s drinking buddy has realised that inside he’s been a woman all along. His son might be gay . . . or bisexual, intersexual, pansexual, polysexual (he runs out of sexuals before ever reaching “heterosexual”). The heteronormative won’t cut it. In order to be on the money, you must use modern-day currency.
Of course, he’s treading a jagged line. The over-woke world is partly what he’s mocking – why would a three year old want a tattoo, for God’s sake? – and partly what he’s welcoming: Charlie gets the tattoo instead.
It’s a difficult balance and at times depth is lost in its pursuit. But it’s style that bolsters the piece. More than comedy or insight, this work has tenderness. Charlie’s love of football, for example, is unexpectedly moving: “Men like me – we’ll forget our own names and we’ll forget that the things at the end of our legs are called feet, but we’ll always remember the 1966 World Cup team and who scored for Ireland in Stuttgart.” It does more than tickle our bellies, it warms our hearts.