Monday, March 24, 2014

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

So we've come full circle. Roddy Doyle began his esteemed career with The Commitments, his novel which focused on Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. as he forms a soul band in Dublin. In it, we get to know Jimmy and his large family, especially his father, Jimmy Sr., as well as a marvelous cast of characters that make up the ragtag group. It was a strong start and was the first of four books set in the fictional Dublin suburb of Barrytown. By the fourth book, Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha, Doyle would win The Booker Prize. 

The Guts picks up with Jimmy twenty-seven years later (though it should be noted that we got to look in on him in the 2007 short story, The Deportees). Today, Jimmy is 47, happily married with his own four kids, and still working in the Irish music biz albeit in a pronounced niche market (Celtic Punk and one-off Irish punk rock re-releases). He has also been diagnosed with bowel cancer. 

Few authors are successful when revisiting characters from earlier works but as we saw a few years back with Paula Spencer, a sequel to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle is more than able to reignite the proper spark and he does so here with Jimmy. It's like finding your old pal with whom you've lost touch, doing well all these years later. Except for the bowel cancer, of course. 

As Jimmy is treated and tries to keep it all together, we see some faces from the past in the book: Commitments co-founder and guitarist Outspan Foster, who is also suffering from cancer though his diagnosis is far more grim; Imelda Quirk, the former Commitments backup singer, still as beautiful as ever, and Jimmy's estranged brother, Derek, who left for England years ago and cut off communication with the Rabbitte clan. Happily, Jimmy meets his Da, Jimmy Sr., for pints on a regular basis and we get to see he's doing well in retirement. 

For me, this book succeeds for so many reasons. Aside from being a huge fan of Doyle's work, I'm the same age as Jimmy and a number of the issues that Doyle addresses in the book have become all too familiar to me. People I know are getting sick and I'm at the age when I'm attending more funerals and fewer weddings. One scene in particular, about having fewer and fewer male friends in middle age, caused me to double over in actual sobs. Few writers, even my very favorites, have the ability to affect me so. Too, Jimmy and I are turning into our fathers, anathema to us in our youth but a comfort now. 

It isn't all a lively romp with a bit of mortality thrown in to counterbalance the levity. Jimmy makes at least one terrible decision that made me angry with him but Doyle manages to make Jimmy all the more human. And as always, the dialogue crackles with life--so profane, so real so funny.

I can't say if we'll see Jimmy again in print though I'd love to check in with him when he and I are pushing sixty. By then, I'd like to think we'll have a learned a few things about what's most important and what matters least. I hope we have friends, we have love in our lives, we have our health, and we are content. Perhaps we can even get the band back together. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Before he was Gary, he was Igor. Born in Leningrad, sickly and asthmatic like the Soviet society as it entered its own death throes, his family emigrated to the US in 1979 as part of a deal struck between Brezhnev and Carter that lifted a long enforced limbo for Soviet Jews in exchange for wheat. As Shteyngart puts it, "Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal". 

His Russian relatives already in America explain in letters that, yes, "the streets are paved with gold. We can sell leather jackets at the flea market!" but it isn't easy. He is an anxious boy in a country that he was taught was the enemy, raised by parents who fought constantly, and who put tremendous pressure on him to succeed, Harvard Law being their ultimate goal for him. He works hard and gets good grades but he drinks like a Russian and smokes dope like Tommy Chong. Most of all, he feels completely unloved. 

At a young age, his beloved grandmother, who was left behind in Russia (another super sad true love story) plied him with sandwiches in exchange for stories. This was a love he sought the rest of his life and so stories have always poured out of him. His father is jealous of him, his mother lacks compassion and Gary is lost. 

Naturally, I expected it to be very funny, and it certainly is, screamingly so at times, but the real power is in the pain that is inflicted and dealt with and not dealt with that makes Little Failure a bitter yet rewarding pill throughout its nearly 400 pages. 

Face it: we all think we are honest with ourselves and, truth be told, it's bullshit. As I try to write pieces other than blog entries, it is my own lack of honesty that prevents me from getting anywhere beyond writing about the works of others. So it goes for me but my admiration for Shteyngart rose considerably as a result of this book. He was a goob and a rube and he smelled funny. He was teased and bullied and ignored. Who wants to revisit these pains and indignities? And who in hell would want to tell the world? These days, every book reviewer and jacket copy writer describes damn near every memoir as "unflinchingly honest" but it was this honesty that made me angry and made me cry for little Igor. 

Little Failure is a love letter to America, to Russia, and to his parents. If you've read any or all of Shteyngarts' three novels, you know how funny and smart his writing is and you'll appreciate his memoir knowing what to expect. If you haven't, reading the memoir will lead you to the novels so you win no matter what. Say what you will about Eggers but I think this is actually a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like Eggers, that's overselling it just a skosh but it's damned close.