Jimmy Rabbitte learns that he has cancer. He is middle-aged now and trying not to turn into his father, Jimmy Senior. But this is the same Jimmy Rabbitte who, as a grand and brilliant lad twenty years earlier, put together a Dublin soul band called the Commitments—the band that exploded on its launch pad and gave its name to Roddy Doyle’s first and most famous novel.
And this is the same Jimmy whose teenage sister Sharon (well, just twenty) got pregnant by some “disgustin’ ould fucker”—the father of one of her girlfriends—and became the protagonist of Doyle’s The Snapper. A leading role she shared with her father, Jimmy Senior, head of the noisy Rabbitte clan in a working-class suburb of North Dublin. Jimmy Senior, in turn, would later lose his job and buy a mobile fish-and-chips wagon with his friend Bimbo: the theme of The Van.
These three novels, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, are known (though not by a slightly resentful Roddy Doyle) as the Barrytown Trilogy. The name is a fictional alias for Kilbarrack, the plebeian district where Doyle grew up and for many years taught. Now, unexpectedly, comes a fourth installment.
It’s the Rabbitte family again. But the twenty-year break has thrown the family into new patterns and perspectives. Jimmy Senior is still going to the same pub with some of the same old pals. But Sharon, with two grown-up children, is on the far periphery of this story and so are the other siblings of Jimmy Junior with one exception—his mysterious brother Les, who vanished to England many years ago and now reappears.
Ireland has changed, too. That’s putting it mildly. When the Commitments were tuning up to sound like Percy Sledge or James Brown, the ascetic Catholic republic was on the threshold of the fabulous “Celtic Tiger” wealth boom that transformed lives, swelled into a giant bubble, and then collapsed. The Guts begins in those times of bust as banks capsize, firms close down, and no job is safe. But Jimmy Junior and his wife Aoife, by luck rather than design, are more or less secure. Their music business had run into trouble and they sold most of it to their friend Noeleen, using the cash to pay off the mortgage on their house just as “the crunch” released its torrent of repossessions and bankruptcies.
The business, then and now, has been tiny, a niche. Aoife (a bit too beautiful, wise, patient, and sexy to be true) thought of it at the kitchen table a few years before. Kelticpunk.com digs up and reissues the music of fierce, forgotten Irish groups who drove young Dubliners frantic a generation ago. From the attic, Jimmy brings down a stack of ancient, dusty singles that puzzle his children. “—What are they? Marvin asked. And Jimmy explained. Music in the grooves, the turntable, the needle—the stylus. The whole fuckin’ history.” But Jimmy himself has moved easily forward with the technology. Back then, he managed the Commitments with the telephone and even written bits of paper. Now Jimmy invades the past armed with texting, googling, Wikipedia, and Facebook.
Gnarled survivors begin to emerge. Des Savage surfaces, once the drummer of the Irregulars, who were known for their single “Fuck England.” Jimmy makes contact with Barry and the Halfbreds (“Your Happiness Makes Me Puke”), now reduced to an aging, hate-driven couple still doing gigs that end in fistfights on stage. For a while, the business keeps afloat. Jimmy likes and respects the adroit Noeleen, who has built up the firm and hired a cool young staff in a large office. And yet he can’t get over his grief that he was forced to sell most of Kelticpunk, his and Aoife’s grand idea, to an outsider.
Jimmy and his father are both in their different ways control freaks who lose control, one failing to discipline the family and the other constantly defied by daft guitarists and monomaniac singers. Jimmy Junior’s long experience has shown him how to entice or bully band rebels back into the ranks. But cancer, the discovery that he has bowel tumors and must undergo surgery and chemotherapy, means a loss of control on a different scale.
You can spend your life in a big family and still have no idea of how its members will react to bad news—or indeed to any news. A theme that recurs in several of these Rabbitte (or Barrytown) novels is the drama of “breaking it” to them. In The Snapper, Sharon’s announcement that she is pregnant goes down almost calmly with her parents: her mother worries mostly about the neighbors, while Jimmy Senior—“Oh—my Jaysis”—is obsessed with “Who was it?” But Sharon won’t say, and—given that so many families in Barrytown have unmarried mothers—her refusal becomes the main point of interest and scandal. She meets her girlfriends for vodka and Coke, and they scream with excitement (“Well done, Sharon, said Yvonne.—Yeh thick bitch yeh”). But her father, after taking the first news without exploding, goes careering off into a series of self-indulgent moods: he decides that he’s ashamed of her when he discovers that the father was an older married man, and then drives her to distraction by switching to suffocating protectiveness (he’s read a book on pregnancy).
So it is with Jimmy Junior and his cancer. After a long session with Jimmy Senior in the pub (ten pages of Dublin jargon, which even Doyle’s genius for dialogue can’t quite keep in the air) he breaks the news to his father. Then, that night, to Aoife, his wife, who weeps and punches him for not telling her earlier. He and Aoife draw up a list of some sixteen people who need to be told, the sister and brother siblings in the Rabbitte clan all over Dublin and beyond, the in-laws and cousins. “Can I not just text everyone?” No, says Aoife firmly. He has to take the family car and go around the doors in Barrytown and elsewhere in person. Some burst into tears. Some make a joke of it, like his brother Darren on the telephone:
—Where are yeh?
—Give me cancer any day, said Darren.
—I’m a lucky man.
It’s harder with his three sons, Marvin (age seventeen), “young Jimmy,” and small, fat Brian. “They stood there in front of him. They were awkward, polite, lovely. And separate—they stood like young men who didn’t really know each other.” They try to laugh, try not to cry—and fail, except for Brian, whose priority is the next Chinese take-out: “The word—cancer—meant nothing to him. Fried rice did, though.” His daughter Mahalia—“May”—starts weeping even before he tells her the news, and sets everyone else off again. Through Facebook, Jimmy makes contact with his lost brother Les, in England. It turns out that Les, a man of few words, was attacked by the same cancer, very probably a hereditary one, but didn’t bother to warn his family.
The one person Jimmy doesn’t tell is his lover, Imelda Quirk. She is a flame from the past, the prettiest and feistiest of the three girls who sang backup for the Commitments so many years ago, and they run into one another again in the pub where Jimmy goes with his father. Still alluring, though disillusioned by years of marriage, Imelda is ready for serious love. But the affair falters. When he finally does tell her, she half-knows already. Cancer, she says, or the telling of it, is his escape route.
Jimmy has a bowel operation. It removes 80 percent of his colon but seems to have been successful. He hangs about the house in a track suit, regaining strength, but when he does venture back into the world, he’s all over the place—mentally and physically. He sends texts to the wrong addresses, forgets where he is.
There’s a disaster when Noeleen throws a Stephen’s Day party for the staff and their families, and Jimmy drinks a slew of mulled wine that his truncated guts can’t handle. The new girl on the staff there is an American intern called Ocean, who is brilliant at locating the old music tracks. Everyone fancies Ocean. Late that evening, drunk Jimmy sees Ned, a much older man, slipping an arm around her and casually caressing her butt. Outraged, he grabs at Ned and slaps his face.
Next day, Jimmy remembers none of this, but Noeleen makes him apologize to Ned, an important client. A cascade of horrible misunderstandings ensues. He phones Ned and says sorry, only to discover that Ocean is beside him in his flat. Jimmy hangs up in horror, then—against Aoife’s advice—rings back to apologize again. “Next time, give her one for me,” he ends jovially.
Then he finds out that Ocean is sharing a flat with Ned for the good reason that he is her father. It’s intriguing that violent revulsion at the idea of older men with young women surfaces all through the Barrytown novels. It’s why Sharon hides the fact that her “snapper”’s dad is the middle-aged father of her friend Yvonne, and why he is treated like a criminal pervert when the truth leaks out. Even the serene Aoife, hearing that Ocean is in Ned’s flat, bursts out: “God, the fucking monster.” For all their foul language and contempt for authority, Doyle’s Dubliners are not at all as sexually liberated as they pretend.
As Jimmy flounders, Ireland sinks into recession with gathering speed. Conor and Sinead, the smart couple who are Jimmy and Aoife’s next-door neighbors (“middle-class gobshites”), do a midnight flit with their children, silently abandoning their house to escape debts and repossession after Conor’s catering firm goes bankrupt. Aoife, used to neighbors who share their troubles aloud, is in tears. “It’s primitive, she said,—Isn’t it?”
And Noeleen’s business—Jimmy’s—is in worse trouble than he realizes. Once she could afford to spend a weekend in the Shelbourne Hotel with her boyfriend, rather than drive back to her country home through the snow. Now she must lay off the staff and give up the smart new office, replacing it with a prefabricated hut in the garden of her mother’s Dublin house. Jimmy Senior looks back mournfully on the golden years that began in 1990, as Ireland’s surge into the quarter-finals of the Italian World Cup presaged the glorious economic boom that followed. “We felt great about ourselves. For years after. An’ tha’ only changed a few years back. Now we’re useless cunts again.”
He’s talking to his son, who has the wild idea to revive the glory of a different year and use it to sell music. In 1932, the Eucharistic Congress had been held in Ireland. Not an event much noticed elsewhere but to dirt-poor, pious Ireland—only ten years out of British rule and civil war—a huge bouquet of international recognition. Now another Eucharistic Congress is coming to the island, and maybe the Holy Father himself will come flying in on its wings. Jimmy decides to dig up the music of Ireland in 1932, the simple, forgotten popular songs of the day, and peg it to Eucharistic nostalgia. His father, by good luck, has an ancient friend who used to collect gramophone song hits from that period. Jimmy Junior, with Ocean to help him, sets out to dig through old Norman’s dusty stacks of vinyl 78s.
By now, Jimmy is dreading but undergoing regular chemotherapy. The nausea “hauls him out of his life,” shatters his mind, and terrifies his children. One day, in the hospital elevator, he meets a rough little figure who turns out to be “Outspan” Foster, another survivor from the Commitments. Outspan, with terminal lung cancer, is in much worse condition than Jimmy. But there’s life in him yet, and he gets pulled into Jimmy’s next project.
There’s haunting, wonderful stuff in Norman’s record collection. And yet “the song”—the old hit of Jimmy’s imagination, which he dreams of unearthing and promoting across old and young Irish generations—refuses to exist. So he decides to write it himself—to invent it. His boy Marvin already leads his own band with a couple of school friends; Marvin agrees to invent the music.
—Will what we’re doing, said Marvin.—Will it, like, be illegal?
—Christ, said Jimmy.—I never thought—. I suppose it will.
A Catholic flyer comes through the door, proclaiming the Eucharistic Congress. The headline reads DEATH, JUDGMENT, HEAVEN AND HELL. Jimmy, about to throw it out, suddenly looks at the words again. “He had the four walls of his song.”
In a last, awful nausea attack, Jimmy sits on his bed with his sons. Between spasms, he helps them put together the words of “I’m Goin’ to Hell” and create a biography for its mythical composer, Kevin Aloysius Tankard. “Little is known of his early life…. There is only one recording known to exist, the recently discovered I’m Goin’ to Hell (1932).”
Marvin and his mates set the words to their own shattering sound, and record it on an iPod as if it had been rescued from an ancient tape. Jimmy shares his incredible “discovery” with Noeleen and Ocean. Noeleen is entranced. Meanwhile Marvin’s band vanishes to Bulgaria on holiday, where the lads do the song in a Stara Zagora disco. A fuzzy cell phone version goes out on YouTube, and Noeleen rushes to sign up these “Bulgarian lads.” She tells Jimmy: “You found this song and a few months later there are kids in Bulgaria playing it. And more kids all over the world watching them. Millions of them.” So Marvin comes back, practicing a hairy Balkan accent, and the band is booked into Ireland’s Electric Picnic music fest as Moanin’ at Midnight.
Now, in its final quarter, Doyle’s novel changes form. It becomes the story of a small pilgrimage, a farewell to youth. Four middle-aged men, Jimmy, Des Savage, Outspan, and Jimmy’s silent brother Leslie (back from England), go with tents and beer to camp with the young through the days and damp nights of a vast music festival outside Dublin. Outspan, with his terminal cancer, has to be helped with his heavy oxygen bottle, and sometimes carried. But they haven’t lost their talent for delight, for drinking, or for carping. The young and beautiful all around them (“D’yis remember when tits used to look like tha’? said Outspan”) are puzzled but kindly, and offer magic mushroom.
Jimmy and his men sample one band, one singer, after another. The reader needs to be smart to know which outfit in the list is real and which—like the Halfbreds playing “Erectile Dysfunction” or the Bastards of Lir (“Celtic wankers”) doing “On Tara’s Hill” for old IRA super-patriots, “a mass of diddly-eyed Provos”—are real only in a different sense. They sample quantities of burgers, and consume quantities of beer, and—being aging gentlemen—are constantly staggering off across the mud of this tent city they name “Darfur” to find a place to piss.
Des, soaring away on psilocybic rapture, actually gets off with an equally stoned woman—“A good-looking wo- man. A bit long in the tooth for her shorts and mucky Uggs. But a wo- man….” To the irritation of Outspan, Des can’t remember if they had sex or not. “What’s the fuckin’ point?”
The other three, all with cancer experience, engage in a drunken discussion of “chemo porn”—a site showing “good-lookin’ women who still look good even though they’re goin’ through chemo. Men as well—some.”
But Jimmy is waiting for the moment when Moanin’ at Midnight climbs onstage. The tent is crammed, heaving. Marvin sings two numbers in his Bulgarian accent. Then he and the band launch into “I’m Goin’ to Hell” and the crowd roars and screams with him, on and on.
It’s a moment of resolution. Jimmy sees that his son has grown up. “He didn’t know how he felt. Robbed and elated.” He texts Noeleen to break the truth to her—that the band is Irish, that the “Bulgarian” lead singer is his son. Then he goes back to his three friends.
The Picnic is nearly over. They are left facing—what? Old age and death, not necessarily in that order. But now Roddy Doyle repeats something that he did at the end of The Commitments, at the black moment when they fell apart in a brawl after their second performance. When it seems that everything is finished, he makes his characters form another band. Des suggests it first. “The Irregulars”? Is Jimmy up for it—on trumpet? He finds that he is. Not Les, who is heading back to England. But Outspan, now hardly able to stand, signs up. “Every half-decent band should have a dead guitarist.”
This long, concluding section at the Picnic is almost too sustained. It’s brilliantly funny and sharply, tenderly observed. And yet it flags a bit. Maybe it’s that uneasy sensation a reader can get when he or she feels jostled by the fun a writer is getting by writing. Roddy Doyle is a great master of dialogue, which is his narrative medium—the main way he tells. And it’s impossible for anyone, I would think, not to laugh out loud at the wit and shock of it. He must have enjoyed composing Jimmy and Outspan arguing, or the long opening chatter of Jimmy with his father in the pub, and he’s entitled to his own delight in a trick he knows he does so well. And yet I don’t want to hear an author laughing as I’m about to laugh. Back off!
It’s mistaken to see Doyle as a novelist trading in nostalgia. He writes constantly about people fascinated by the past—Ireland’s or their own—but that’s a different matter. His fictional cast comes from a Dublin working class that is very old-fashioned and now passing away. But Doyle, to judge by The Guts, thoroughly enjoys the way in which his characters confront and then enter new attitudes, technologies, and moralities. No nostalgia here. And Barrytown has a long way to go before its folk become docile shoppers in a global bourgeoisie.
The three previous Barrytown novels had a relatively simple shape. In all of them, an “emotionally successful family” (Doyle’s own words) was the background to somebody’s venture or transgression, and was there to enfold the individual when it was all over. In The Commitments, a young man finds that he can create a band; in The Snapper (much more like a first novel than its predecessor), a young woman becomes an unmarried mother; in The Van, a man loses his job and invents a new way to live and earn. The Guts is more complex, perhaps less successful because of its multiple narratives: a family struggling with proud children, a scheme to revive old music that becomes a wonderful forgery plot, an adultery in a good marriage, an experience of cancer and chemotherapy. If it has a unifying theme, it is the awareness of death, and the fresh perspectives on life thrown by its advancing shadow. The Rabbittes greet the shadow with tears and horror. But then, after a few pints, with a defiant four-letter word.