Earnestness. It’s the worst sin in the Barrytown book. If you want to get slagged unmercifully just put your “I’m serious" face on in the pub and watch what happens. Your mates will devour you.
Even if you have cancer, actually. Maybe especially then.
In The Guts, Roddy Doyle’s long awaited follow up to The Commitments, our hero Jimmy Rabbitte has long moved on from managing the most self-destructive band in rock history.
Now he’s 47, organizing rocks gigs via his punk band website and quietly contending with bowel cancer along with the unexpected fallout of recession-hit Ireland.
As storylines go it’s not the funniest ever, on the surface at least. Back in the 1980s in The Commitments Rabbitte was an untested youth with a massive chip on his shoulder, but in The Guts he’s heading toward a midlife crisis and the almost obligatory extramarital affair that accompanies it.
Living with a potentially fatal disease is anxiety-making enough, but add to that a serious Celtic Tiger hangover, a house full of teenagers and an old acquaintance who actually is dying of cancer and you have enough drama for several lifetimes.
You also have a surprisingly funny new book, a brilliant sequel of sorts to the freewheeling Barrytown classics that made Doyle’s reputation. It’s courageous to pick cancer and Ireland’s financial collapse and say, these will be subjects in my new novel.
But as Doyle is well aware, these unexpectedly hard knocks are also what happens in life. Somehow, though, The Guts ends up being completely transcendent. Was Doyle surprised by that development?
“No, I wasn’t,” he tells the Irish Voice. “I always had that ending in mind. My initial plan was, a long time before I started the book and before I’d decided to bring back Jimmy Rabbitte, ill man goes to rock festival.
“So, the conclusion of the story, unusually for me, was there from the start. The particulars of the conclusion – what is said and done line by line – were daily surprises.”
In the novel Rabbitte reunites Irish punk bands for festival performances. That allows him some nostalgia about the past – highly necessary to navigate an anxious present – but it sends it up mercilessly too.
It’s a brilliant way to examine all that Celtic Twilight, Old Mother Ireland stuff that drives him mad too. As one character in the new book says of the enduring appeal of romantic nationalism, “That s***e’s never far away.”
Why do you think this is? “There’s money in it, and it’s cozy,” Doyle replies tersely.
In the new book Jimmy’s daughter is called Mahalia. That’s a clear reminder that even though The Commitments era is long over, Dublin and Ireland still needs soul music. Am I right?
“I came up with the daughter’s name a long time before I started the novel. I wrote a story called The Deportees, in 2000 or 2001. In it, Jimmy Rabbitte had one last stab at band management, a multi-ethnic group called the Deportees,” Doyle says.
“I needed to give him a family, so two of his kids got names we associate with black American music, Marvin and Mahalia. There’s no depth to the names, or hidden meanings. They’re just fun – I thought.
“But, having said that, we all need soul. I recently saw something on YouTube, a young woman on a street – in Bristol, I think – dancing to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy.’ It was the most joyful thing I’ve seen in ages; I was floating for days after it.”
The way the Irish talk about death has always been remarkable. But the way Doyle writes about cancer and the fear of death in The Guts is masterful.
First there’s the solemnity, and then there’s the Irish corrective impulse to lampoon it as quickly and mercilessly as possible.
Jimmy and Jimmy Sr.’s scene at the start of the book – you want it to go on forever – makes us laugh and terrifies us and moves us to tears, often from sentence to sentence. What accounts for — how do you explain – the Irish facility with terror and hilarity?
“I think those of us with a good few years under our belts reach the conclusion that funerals are much better than weddings,” says Doyle. “Maybe because we stop getting invited to weddings and death starts knocking on the door; I don’t know. Strangely, people often assume that comedy evades darker reality but I’ve always felt it confronts it head-on.
“I think laughing at death does two things: it makes it easier, and it tells death to f*** off. Regarding the two Jimmys, father and son, if there’s one thing that all the Irish men I know over the age of 40 hate, including myself and my father, it’s earnestness. No matter how grim the topic, it’ll be slapped.”
Doyle’s work often reminds us that poverty is a form of violence in itself. The destabilizing force of poverty in Irish history and in the present has been a theme of his for years – would Doyle agree?
“Most people, I think, during the Tiger years thought there was a new solidity to life in Ireland that hadn’t been there before, that the children would find good work, that there’d always be money in the pocket,” he offers.
“It wasn’t greed; if anything, it was naïveté, or just optimism, or smugness. Anyway, people who’d always struggled, who knew what an empty fridge two days before payday looks and smells like, found themselves with full fridges, and bigger fridges too.
“Then that went, seemingly overnight, that security. Anxiety was back. That’s what Jimmy and his wife and his friends and acquaintances are dealing with. They’re adjusting to a new, but familiar looking, reality. It’s frightening.
“What’ll I do without money? Can I still be a man without being able to earn? If I die, what sort of a mess will I be leaving? Confronting these questions, battering through them, is heroic, I think. Adjusting, coping, laughing – everyday heroism.”
In Doyle’s work he has always resisted the siren call of Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the romantic vision of Ireland that hides so much under the national carpet, rightly seeing the rigid class structure that gets smuggled in under that vaunted vision. In The Guts he makes that point forcefully. Why do so many Irish writers still avoid engaging with class and what it makes of us?
“I think, more than anything else, my 14 years of high school teaching had a huge impact on me,” Doyle says.
“When you see a child who can’t concentrate because he’s hungry, or when you meet a lone parent who’s determined that her daughter will have more opportunities than she’d had – these experiences shape you.
“As for other Irish writers, if we all wrote the same thing, it would be very tedious, wouldn’t it?”
In his Henry trilogy Doyle did something that hadn’t really been done in Irish literature since Sean O’Casey. He offered a clear-sighted assessment of the social and religious forces that begin to blight the lives of the working class in the emerging Republic.
Have we really come to terms with the class struggles that created them? Have we learned how to move beyond the imprisoning myths and nationalisms that gave us those times? Will we ever escape 1932 and all that goes with it?
“Ireland has changed an awful lot since I was a young man. It’s a much more open, freer place. But I think 2016 will be very interesting,” he says of the 100th anniversary of the Rising.
“It seems to me that the definition of Irishness is always shifting and altering, so it will be fascinating to see who tries to nudge the definition back towards 1916, or forwards into the 21st century – and who will win.”
Doyle’s Dubliners are leery of culchies or boggars – basically anyone Irish who isn’t from Dublin themselves. What motivates that?
“Fun. There’s great enjoyment to be had in the Dublin vs. The Rest attitude. It makes us, Dubliners, both less Irish and more Irish. We’re Irish AND Dubliners, while the rest of them are just Irish.
“When Dublin are playing we know that the other 31 counties are against – and that makes us feels unloved and wonderful. Almost continental.”
In The Commitments and The Guts music has the power to save your life. Music has been Jimmy’s passion his whole life. It’s also Doyle’s.
“Music – even bad music – is humanity at its best,” says Doyle.
So is an ear for music the same thing as an ear for dialogue?
“Probably not. I like to think I have an ear for dialogue but I’ve been trying to learn the trumpet and, two years in, I’m still s***e,” he laughs.