By Roddy Doyle Jonathan Cape, 90pp. £6.99
FICTION:IN PUBLISHING the end of the world is always upon us. When Allen Lane created the paperback novel there were fears that writing would suffer. When sales of ebooks began to rise readers wondered whether bookshops would survive. And with the advent of social media even the way fiction is written has begun to change. Roddy Doyle’s latest work, Two Pints, marks a watershed in publishing, for it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first book to be written entirely on Facebook before publication.
Over 18 months Doyle used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it. The dialogues follow Irish and international affairs from the visit of Queen Elizabeth in May 2011 through to this summer’s Olympic Games, taking in the race for the park, the EU bailouts, the tragedy aboard Costa Concordia and the Breivik shootings on Utoya along the way. Juxtaposed with these dark moments are lighter ones: a saga of a grandson with a home zoo and a hilarious moment of homosexual panic over incipient crushes on the footballers Fernando Torres and Andriy Shevchenko.
Although these pieces continue to entertain on Facebook, they work better in collected form, where the refrains and anxieties, perhaps overlooked by the casual internet user, become clearer and more defined. For a very funny book it’s perhaps surprising that the recurring themes are mortality and death. Our speakers notice the passing of every celebrity and are particularly concerned with the loss of cultural icons: Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Davy Jones. One man is inclined towards provocation, the other towards deference. Their conversations occasionally become angry, but peace is always restored over pints.
The collection is presented in diary form, and as 2011 progresses so does the greatest reality-TV show the Irish media has ever produced – the presidential election – and Doyle milks it for every last insight and laugh.
Dana is nothing more than “Louis Walsh in a fuckin’ dress”. (One can only imagine Walsh, who recently called Roddy Doyle “the rudest man in show business”, for having the effrontery to resist overtures from his organ grinder Simon Cowell, squeaking in fury at the slur.) Seán Gallagher is “an ol’ Fianna Fáil hack. Up to his entrepreneurial bollix in it”. And David Norris, the subject on everyone’s lips in September last year for writing “a letter defendin’ an Israeli paedophile”, has his patriotism called into question: “Could he not’ve defended one of our own paedophiles?” As for Miriam O’Callaghan’s alleged bullying of Martin McGuinness on Prime Time: “She can bully me anny time she fuckin’ wants.”
Sometimes the jokes mask an underlying contempt, such as when one of the drinkers remarks of Mary Lou McDonald, “the young Shinners have been trained to smile. So yeh won’t think they’re goin’ to kneecap yeh when you open the door an’ they’re on the step.”
Doyle reduces moments of political and cultural upheaval to single sentences, highlighting the absurdity of the fools whose juvenile antics hit the papers. Anthony Weiner, the unfortunately named New York congressman, is summed up as “your man in America who twittered his dick”. Irish politicians, Doyle points out, would be less capable of doing this, because of the lack of broadband in rural areas.
It’s not all played for laughs, though. A series of exchanges about the Vatican’s response, or lack thereof, to the report on institutional abuse in the Catholic Church leads one of our speakers to contact the pope directly.
“You emailed the Pope? Did he answer? / Not yet. Come here, but. Yeh know the way you’re angry sometimes but yeh cop on an’ calm down. But other times you’re angry an’ yeh know you’re righ’ to be. / Yeah. / Yeah, well, this was one o’ those times.”
Which in turn recalls a section from David Norris’s recent autobiography: “I wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Dublin . . . but my request was ignored. Then I telephoned . . . and again nothing happened. In the end I popped around . . . and put another letter in the hands of his secretary. That at last provoked a response – which was that the Archbishop of Dublin did not get involved in individual cases.” Art and truth, one reflecting the other perfectly.
The book comes completely up to date with a thoughtful tribute to Maeve Binchy. One suspects the great writer would have been delighted by the epitaph that when the drinker’s wife was lying in bed with one of her novels, “yeh knew it was goin’ to be a quiet fuckin’ night”.
Roddy Doyle is the sort of comic novelist who actually makes the reader laugh, which is a lot rarer than you might think. And although Two Pints is unlikely to hold the same importance in Doyle’s body of work as, say, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, the Last Round-Up trilogy or the outstanding children’s novel Wilderness, it’s funny, provocative and never less than entertaining. After all, when the meaning of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is summed up as, “I go for the cod. I regret the burger,” one can only wish to be a teenager again, studying for the Leaving Cert in one of Doyle’s English classes, using humour to fight through the stuffiness and reveal the truths hidden within.
John Boyne is the author of seven novels for adults and three for children, most recently The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket