– Look it, my name’s Jimmy Rabbitte. Yeh might remember. I managed a band called the Commitments.
– No? Doesn’t matter.
The Guts, the latest novel from Booker Prize-winner (and last year’s Giller juror) Roddy Doyle, finds Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. a quarter-century older, though not necessarily wiser. The erstwhile band manager is now a husband and father, and the founder and co-owner of an online record label dedicated to the “glories” of forgotten Irish punk acts. He’s close with his children, and meets with his father regularly for pints and a yammer. He and his wife, Aoife, paid off their mortgage with the majority sale of the label, and, “three years into a recession that still felt like it was just starting, life was a bit safe.”
Jimmy seems to have it pretty good. Of course, that won’t last.
The novel opens with Jimmy telling his father that he has been diagnosed with cancer:
– Jesus, son.
– Wha’ kind?
– Could be worse.
– Could it?
– So they say, said Jimmy.
– The doctors an’ tha’. The specialists. The team.
– The team?
– What colour are their jerseys?
Jimmy couldn’t think of an answer.
The cancer is treatable – readers follow Jimmy through his surgery and rounds of chemo – but the diagnosis serves as a catalyst, exacerbating and exposing the more easily overlooked problems underlying Jimmy’s “safe” life. The business is foundering, and Jimmy hates working with Noeleen, the majority partner, who has propped the company up by forcing him to embrace “a stable of bitter old men who, forty years ago, had tried to fuse traditional music and rock … electrified diddley-eye” (his family’s accusations that he’s a “musical fascist” are well-founded). The family is just squeaking by, financially. He’s a middle-aged man with doubts and a need to prove himself, which makes his sudden reacquaintance with Imelda, a former Commitmentette, still alluring after all these years, all the more dangerous. As Hemingway once wrote about going broke, things fall apart, first gradually, then suddenly.
The Guts chronicles the implosion and recovery of Rabbitte’s life with a note-perfect blend of humour and pathos, rooted in both richly created, realistic and sympathetic characters and utterly ridiculous, outlandish scenarios. One of the novel’s narrative threads, for example, is Rabbitte’s attempt to compile a collection of music from 1932 to mark the upcoming Eucharistic Congress, the first in Ireland in 80 years, “–Music that never made it onto the radio. Our own blues, say. Suppressed – deliberately forgotten.” And just how Rabbitte’s career and family and overall happiness come to hinge on the resulting boys’ weekend at an Irish music festival featuring a faux-Bulgarian punk band performing an ersatz historical rebel-sex song – which Rabbitte himself wrote – is a thing of beauty, and provides the emotional payoff for the novel.
The Guts is a breezy read, characterized largely by crackling dialogue and pithy narrative; there is no ponderousness here. This is not to say, however, that it lacks depth; quite the opposite is true, in fact. The breeziness of the novel’s surfaces belies an incredible darkness below. We’re carried away as readers by the pace, by the humour, by the eventual redemption of Jimmy Rabbitte, but we bring the darker realities of the events with us too; the fate of Outspan Foster, former Commitments guitarist, whom Jimmy reconnects with in the cancer clinic, serves as a potent counterpoint to Jimmy’s eventual recovery, while the reality of Jimmy’s relationship with Imelda nicely counters the middle-aged fantasy of finally hooking up with the girl of your youthful dreams.
Cancer, mortality, infidelity, middle-aged anxiety, impending financial ruin and family crises are generally not the stuff of comedy, and Doyle doesn’t treat them as laughing matters here. Rather, the key to the success of The Guts – and of much of Doyle’s writing – is his ability to find the seams where laughter bursts through the dark, the soft places where life’s brutalities can be leavened, even a little, by cheer (even at the expense of someone else). To find those real places where a pint and a yammer can counter the nostalgic yearning for the past and the pointless dreaming of the future. Like life itself, The Guts is messy and rambling and painful and funny and achingly, achingly real.
Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Bedtime Story and Before I Wake. His new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.