Book review: The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

by The Listener / 05 September, 2013
The Commitments’ Jimmy Rabbitte returns 25 years on.
Roddy Doyle: deft. Photo/Mark Nixon

So Roddy Doyle resurrects the manager from The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte, for a new generation and does a sterling job. The Guts isn’t a sequel as such; although some of the names from Doyle’s phenomenally successful 1988 first novel reappear, you won’t be at a disadvantage if you haven’t read it (or seen the film). But if you’ve read any other Doyle, whether comic novels like The Snapper and The Van or grim and gritty tales such as the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked into Doors, you’ll know what to expect. The Guts is a kind of blend of both signature styles.

Hilarious though the novel is, the fact Jimmy, now 47, has just been diagnosed with bowel cancer lends pathos to the proceedings. Of course, there’s room for much sick humour – Jimmy’s purple velour “cancer pants” are priceless – but the illness allows Doyle to delve deep into the territory of family. Jimmy, like any middle-aged father of four, struggles to communicate with his kids at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, what does he do? He asks his wife, “When’s best to tell the kids?” “Before The X Factor,” comes back the reply.

The Guts is firmly rooted in the here and now. Its first line – “D’yeh do the Facebook thing?” – makes it
clear we’re deep in 2013. Indeed, Doyle incorporates email, iPads and even texting effortlessly and to great effect, handling them with the deftness of his dialogue.

The tell-it-how-you-hear-it style puts you in the thick of Dublin, so to speak, with all its effing and blinding, but without the need for translation that, say, Irvine Welsh’s Scottish dialects sometimes require. Doyle captures not just the words but also the cadences and colloquialisms so beautifully that a novel with a love of music at its heart has its own musicality.

And a rhythm of its own, too. The dialogue is so quick-fire he moves you through the 360 pages rapidly, allowing you to turn a blind eye to the occasional overreach of plot and slip-up in structure (the uninterrupted final section, although bringing things to a delightful conclusion, stands out in too stark a contrast to the bite-sized chunks that precede it).

Moving with Jimmy as he works through all his challenges – trying to beat the cancer, looking for the one big musical idea that will launch his nostalgia/punk website into the stratosphere, understanding his kids, reuniting with his long-lost brother and learning to play the trumpet – is a ride of utter delight, a heady combination of hilarity and empathy.

Jimmy is such a likeable and authentic character you even forgive him a couple of very poor decisions, including one or two with the gorgeous Imelda, she of Commitments fame. He can be an eejit, but mostly, as he keeps trying to tell himself, he is, like this brilliant novel, just grand.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape, $37.99).
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