Juggling beer, music, and cancer
By Roddy Doyle
Viking. 336 pp. $27.95
Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
Before winning the Booker Prize in 1993 for his fourth novel, the superb Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Irish writer Roddy Doyle wrote a series of books that eventually became known as The Barrytown Trilogy. These novels - 1987's The Commitments, 1990's The Snapper, and 1991's The Van - tell the story of the Rabbittes, a working-class family living in Dublin.
In fast and funny prose that consists almost entirely of dialect-heavy dialogue, each work focuses on a different member of the family. The Commitments concerns young Jimmy Rabbitte's creation and management of a band dedicated to American soul music, while The Snapper is dedicated to his sister, Sharon, and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The patriarch of the family, Jimmy Sr., and his struggles running a fish-and-chips van are the focus of the final installment.
The final installment until now, that is. Seven novels and 23 years after The Van, Doyle returns to Barrytown and Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., who is now 47, married, and the father of four children. He's still in the music business, but instead of managing a band, he's now managing a website, kelticpunk.com, which is intended to resurrect interest in the music of bands from decades earlier, the music he still loves. But suddenly, out of nowhere: cancer of the bowels. And just like that, his comfortable, contented life is thrown into disarray.
Doyle does a very fine job of tracking Jimmy's ups and downs, both emotionally and physically, as he moves from diagnosis to surgery to chemotherapy. Because of the hereditary nature of his cancer, he reaches out to his estranged brother, Les, in order to advise him to get tested, but Jimmy is also looking to reconnect with his past before it's possibly too late. Besides Les (who he discovers has already been treated for the same cancer), he reunites with two people from his days with the Commitments, guitarist Liam "Outspan" Foster and beautiful backup singer Imelda Quirk. Oh, and he also takes up the trumpet, and works to put together a CD of Irish music recorded in 1932 in time for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which is convening in Dublin for the first time since that year. Meanwhile, his oldest son is in a band that suddenly becomes a YouTube darling.
In other words, he has a lot going on, and Doyle does an impressive job of juggling all of these balls without letting any fall; however, the frenzy here seems less intrinsic to the narrative than it does in the previous Barrytown books, especially once a few of the elements added to the act fly off trajectory and into either improbable or overly sentimental territory. Ironically enough, the breakneck pace and machine-gun rhythms of Doyle's sentences, which have always been a celebrated characteristic of his style, seem more sluggish here than sprightly.
Not until the final fourth of the novel, when Jimmy attends a music festival with his brother and two friends, does The Guts resemble the best of The Barrytown Trilogy. Here, the repartee of middle-aged camaraderie comes to the fore, superseding most of the prior plot machinations. Turned loose from these concerns, Jimmy simply drinks beer and talks with his friends for pages and pages, and then drinks more beer and talks still more. Though Jimmy's dramatic fight with cancer may be the book's central concern, what leaves the biggest impression, as is frequently the case with Doyle's work, is his truly masterful ability to capture the simultaneously coarse and confessional conversations of inebriated men (which is, in part, why The Van is the best of the Barrytown books). No one on the planet does it better.
Despite the noted weaknesses, fans of Doyle's first three novels will find plenty to enjoy as they reimmerse themselves not only in the lives of the Rabbittes but also in the vibrant language of Doyle's Dublin, which is impossible not to hear echoing in your head for days afterward. For readers not familiar with either Doyle in general or The Barrytown Trilogy (or Tetralogy now, to be precise) in particular, The Guts is not the best place to start, though it's not too bad a place to wind up eventually.
Roddy Doyle, "The Guts" (with Wesley Stace, "Wonderkid")
7:30 p.m. Friday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents.
Kevin Grauke is an associate professor of English at La Salle University. He is the author of "Shadows of Men," a short-story collection.