Something in Ireland’s mythic past turns stalwart, stone-faced men to misty-eyed mush. Many contemporary Irish writers manage to resist it, of course, but only Roddy Doyle has wandered into Irish history’s holy of holies—Dublin’s General Post Office during the Easter Rising of 1916—and come out with his vision clear and bitter blue-collar cheek intact. Henry Smart, titular hero of Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, teenage IRA assassin-in-the-making, and a Sweet Sweetback-like outlaw hero of the Irish revolution, assesses the GPO scene and muses, “Day Two of the revolution and I was already bored.”
A terse exchange amid the rioting and looting of the initial days of the revolution cuts even closer to Doyle’s essential take on colonial Ireland and whatever came after it: “That’s Irish property!” remarks one indignant Irishman. The battle-cry reply: “It’ll still be Irish after it’s stolen!”
Doyle has never cared a whit for any legend-steeped notion of Ireland’s ancient kings and queens, gauzy tales of pre-colonial Celtic glory, or delusional visions of an independent Ireland as some sort of Home Rule/Rome Rule Elysium; nor has he wasted a minute reveling in the modern Irish state’s liberation from the shackles of British dominance. To Doyle, the history of Ireland is the history of class struggle, and never more so than in post-colonial Ireland, after the Irish working class won Ireland’s freedom and the Irish middle class stole it right back (and handed off most of it to priests). As Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. remarks in Doyle’s new book, The Guts, describing his country’s prompt descent into post-colonial quagmire, “Ireland in 1932 was a miserable place…Kids with no shoes, hunger, bad housin’, the Church supervisin’ everythin’. But the official picture was different. Happy peasants, glad to be rid of the Brits.”
Though not exactly the message of The Guts, Jimmy’s working-class indignation connects it to A Star Called Henry and all of Doyle’s best work. That same attitude aligns Jimmy and Henry with former rapper Flavor Flav in his first (pre-reality TV) incarnation as the razor-sharp comic side of legendary hip-hop outfit Public Enemy: “I got a right to be hostile.”
Even in occasional polemicist mode, Doyle characters have usually come off more like the wisecracking Flavor Flav than his bandmate Chuck D (who delivered the stentorian side of the same message); and the Irish novelist has drawn connections between Irish and African-American outrage right from the outset.
In The Guts, Doyle delivers the first true sequel to his first novel, The Commitments, published in 1987 (and turned into a hit film four years later), about a self-mythologizing 21-year-old born impresario named Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., with a world-class chip on his shoulder and high principles in low places and everywhere else. Jimmy assembles a Stax-style southern soul band from the ranks of his own North Dublin neighborhood. Explaining to his friends that the Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin, and that soul is the music of sex and politics and the proletariat, he proclaims to his Barrytown, Dublin mates, “Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from. Say it once, say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.”
Grandstanding hyperbole aside (and in Doyle’s hands, Jimmy Jr.’s soapbox moments divide equally into comic bluster and iconic truth), Doyle and his characters understand some crucial things about soul music that, frankly, tended to elude most of the white hippies who tried to play it in its heyday: Anything but unfettered, sloppy self-expression, as Commitments trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan explains, “Soul music has corners.”
The Commitments of novel and film coalesced for a few magnificent, soulful and comic moments, brawled constantly, imploded spectacularly at the end of the story, and then went their separate ways. Most Doyle fans probably know that Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.’s father, Jimmy Sr., returned as the protagonist of two subsequent novels, The Snapper and The Van, as a much deeper character than the marginal, one-dimensional Elvis fanatic who appears sporadically in The Commitments. (In a wonderfully unexpected, comical and heart-warming transformation, Jimmy Sr. quietly undergoes a lovely, private, non-destabilizing mid-life sexual awakening as he chews over his daughter’s unexpected teen pregnancy in The Snapper. He pores over prenatal care books, cluelessly asks his daughter biologically invasive questions about her pregnancy as he absorbs the books’ contents, musing over whether you’d properly think of sex as “riding” when it involves your wife, and so forth. Imagine Archie Bunker embracing the same inner monologue and the world becomes an oddly funnier and nicer place.)
Most of The Van takes place on the unforgettable day in June 1990 when Ireland’s first World Cup team fought to a draw against the British squad, and the entire island descended into blissful madness for a day that, according to Jimmy Jr. 20 years later in The Guts, birthed a new, EU-ready, triumphalist Ireland. That single glorious day, Jimmy Jr. theorizes, predicated all the fiscal overreaching and hubris of the Celtic Tiger, the explosion of economic prosperity that briefly made Ireland a country that accumulated immigrants rather than bleeding émigrés. Things then declined precipitously and dumped the country into depression again.
It’s there that The Guts begins, in 2012 Barrytown, with barely an echo of the Celtic Tiger’s brief roar remaining and Ireland deep in debt, with little to show for the wild ride of its last two decades but a deep distrust of priests and a surprisingly varied new ethnic makeup. (Nigerians and Romanians, not the Northsiders, are the blacks of Ireland now.) The Guts is Jimmy Jr.’s story, but in a welcome change from the first three Rabbitte books (now known as The Barrytown Trilogy) we actually see a good bit of Jimmy Sr. too. In the past they’ve mostly stayed out of each other’s books (The Commitments was Jr.’s; The Snapper and The Van were Sr.’s.).
Like all the Barrytown books (The Commitments and The Snapper especially), dialogue makes up 90 percent of The Guts—most irresistibly, the interplay between Sr. and Jr. Although the book moves on to great places after the opening scene of the Rabbitte men in the pub, you never want it to end. A Star Called Henry still stands as Doyle’s finest hour, a sustained high-wire act that set a seemingly impossible standard for the crackling vitality of story, characterizations and dialogue; he somehow maintained that energy and intensity from the first page to the last. But Doyle never found that level again even in the best moments of the two Henry Smart sequels, Oh Play That Thing and The Dead Republic. Doyle often seemed at a loss as to where to take Henry next. A Star Called Henry unfolds like the secret history of Ireland—a gritty, grimy, utterly necessary corrective to everything you’ve read before. (As well as a whale of a tale, with a hell of a hero.) But Henry Smart’s later adventures often feel, if not insubstantial, then inessential.
The Barrytown books thrive on different strengths, all very much in evidence in The Guts. Few writers have ever handled their characters with the sure-footed facility Doyle enjoys with the Rabbittes. A Star Called Henry may be Doyle’s masterpiece, but his unique and indelible voice resounds in the Barrytown books in clipped, offhand, profane, relentlessly piss-taking exchanges between Jimmys Sr. and Jr., and Jimmy Jr.’s wife, kids and mates.
In the opening scene with Jimmy Jr. and Jimmy Sr. in the pub, Jimmy Jr. reveals the biggest change in his life, telling his father that he has bowel cancer. After Jimmy Jr. recounts how he heard of the diagnosis, his scheduled surgery and the probability of chemotherapy, Jimmy Sr. says, “Too much to take in.” Jimmy Jr. continues, “So…”
—I went back to work, he said.
—That’s a bit strange but, is it? said his da. -A bit of a fuckin’ under-reaction or somethin’.
—I don’t think so, said Jimmy. -I know what yeh mean. But no. I was numb, Da. I hadn’t a clue. So I went back. I was hungry on the way back. Starvin’.
—Did yeh drive?
—I did, yeah. No one told me not to. But I was grand. I got back to work. Bought a sandwich an’ a packet of Tayto—
—Maybe your last.
—D’yeh want a pack now?
—No, said Jimmy. —No, yeah, I’d love one. Thanks.
And so we discover, bit by offhand bit, where things stand in 47-year-old Jimmy Jr.’s world: He often enjoys a pint (but only one) with his recently retired father, before going home to his wife and four kids, who slag him as much as his father does. He’s reeling from his recent bowel cancer diagnosis. And he runs a business called kelticpunk.com, which he and his wife Aoife founded several years earlier to revive the careers of raucous early-’80s underground Irish punk bands (selling their music online as MP3s, reuniting them if enough members still live, sometimes getting them back in the studio, and often booking them new gigs based on the interest stirred up by their MP3 sales). More recently, though, he’s sold most of the kelticpunk.com equity to a woman who likes to throw around one-star generalist phrases like “It’s the new austerity; youth has been cancelled.” She bought the site for the Keltic part of the name, not the punk, so that she could cash in on the nostalgia value of misty-eyed, reverent “Celtic Rock”—“electrified diddley-eye…The Sons of the Fianna, the Minstrel Boys, the Bastards of Lir—Jimmy hated them all.”
Kelticpunk.com, though never an entirely reliable source of income, paid Jimmy and Aiofe’s mortgage for years, but like everything in Ireland it’s collapsing as the book begins. Jimmy seizes on a gimmick to try to resurrect it. With the Eucharistic Congress coming to Dublin for the first time since 1932, Jimmy anticipates a tidal wave of 1932 nostalgia headed Ireland’s way, and proclaims that Kelticpunk.com will cash in on it by compiling a CD of long-forgotten Irish pop songs from 1932 with subtle hints of sex and sedition in the lyrics. Of course, papist pride isn’t what it used to be in Ireland, so anticipation of the new Pope’s visit isn’t exactly setting the country on fire. Finding a song that will express everything Jimmy hopes to decode from 1932 Irish pop lyrics proves more difficult than he imagines.
At this point, the novel of such an avowedly anti-mythic-Ireland writer and protagonist takes a delightfully Commitments-style self-mythologizing turn, as Jimmy decides to invent the song his best efforts failed to unearth, and pass it off as a genuine lost 78.
Jimmy re-connects with a few old Commitments bandmates during the course of the book—the lovely-as-ever Imelda Quirk in a pub, the now-dying rhythm guitarist Outspan at the chemo clinic. With some discomfort, Jimmy and Outspan slowly resurrect their friendship, and the two ex-Commitments, along with Jimmy’s long-estranged emigrant brother, and a member of one of the authentically punk Kelticpunk bands, agree to take Outspan’s oxygen tank and their by-varying-degrees diminished middle-aged selves to Ireland’s biggest music festival. The festival adventure yields a grand final act that rivals the wild and prolonged melee of the Ireland-England World Cup match of 1990 that Doyle captured so memorably in The Van.
The good news about the Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. of The Guts? The last quarter-century hasn’t left him all that diminished, bowel cancer and all. But he does catch himself softening up somewhat on the rank sentimentality he sees everywhere (much as Henry Smart begrudgingly softened his stance on the self-satisfied creature comforts of 1960s middle-class Ireland in The Dead Republic). He absorbs his new tolerance as hard-won (if somewhat hard-to-accept) wisdom that actually makes him easier to live with for all concerned, himself included. The Guts doesn’t feel like the end of the story, providing no grand conclusion or resolution to the adventures of Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. or Sr. ...or even so much as a ne’er-do-well’s half-serious condemnation/benediction, a “God’s mercy on the wild Ginger Man.”
But maybe The Guts will prove the last we’ll see of the Rabbittes anyway, even if we never get to witness Jimmy Jr.’s last moment in “present tense” as he briefly imagines it at the chemo clinic in The Guts (along with the Ennio Morricone soundtrack to his funeral). But even if The Guts delivers our last invitation to Barrytown, that’s fine; witnessing the alpha and omega of Barrytown life never seemed part of the deal. Post-chemo Outspan notwithstanding, Doyle has never styled himself a doctor who sees only terminal cases, as John Irving described the novelist; Doyle himself would tell you matter-of-factly that he would never have become a writer—much less a doctor of anything—if he’d grown up few years earlier, before 1967 when secondary education in Ireland became free.
Still, observing Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.’s prickly arrival into the middle of life (and knowing little more than that he’ll survive it) proves a satisfying conclusion of its own. If Jimmy has made a few compromises along the way, as we all do, his voice remains extraordinarily real, as does his author’s.
Voices have always stood at the center of Doyle’s Barrytown books—the narrative voice of the author; the swearing, singular voices of the characters—more so than any high drama in the stories they tell. Doyle remarked in a recent interview that it was his job to “stay awake and not slip into some notion that I know what street life in Dublin is like without having to venture out onto the streets.”
Whatever Doyle does to keep his ear tuned and his dialogue true, it works, as The Guts amply demonstrates. It crackles with grit, wit, and bite…and it still has corners. Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.’s righteous indignation remains riotous and real. He still claims his right to be hostile, and even if his hostility’s bitter edge has dulled a bit, the comic edge remains as sharp as ever.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.