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. 

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