More than twenty years have passed since entrepreneurial young Irish scenester Jimmy Rabbitte gathered the eclectic cast of ne’er-do-wells who became the unlikely soul band The Commitments. Author Roddy Doyle revisited the Rabbitte family on paper throughout the ‘90s, focusing on Jimmy’s pregnant sister in The Snapper and unemployed father in The Van (which, like The Commitments, were both made into movies). Thus, the Dublin writer’s Barrytown Trilogy was complete.
Or so we thought.
Doyle’s new novel, The Guts, reunites readers with a middle-age Jimmy (age 47) in a topsy-turvy world. The Commitments broke up eons ago and have faded into history. Northern Island is reeling from recession. Jimmy is still very much a “music fascist” who hates jazz, but age has softened him to the sounds of Steely Dan and Hall & Oates. He’s got a doting wife, Aiofe. He’s also got four teenagers (two of whom are named or nicknamed for Motown artists) eating him out of house and home.
Oh, and he’s got bowel cancer, too.
Relying on his keen wit to bolster his spirits, Jimmy reaffirms family bonds with his “Da,” his wife, and his children—and reconnects with a few old friends—after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. Once again, Doyle constructs his working-class people, their circumstances, and their environs with clever dialogue, allowing readers to sympathize with the characters vis-à-vis their words and social interactions with others. Narrative description is either kept to a minimum or sprinkled into the many touching conversations between Jimmy and his close-knit inner circle.
Keep that Kleenex handy, folks. This one’s a tear-jerker.
In the ashes of The Commitments, Jimmy and Aiofe started their own company—a record label or sorts—through which they market and sell forgotten songs by nostalgia acts. Jimmy may be an older dog, but he’s learning new tricks: His Nokia cell phone is a constant companion, and his kids hip him to other technology, like Facebook and iTunes, which he then employs on the job (or explains to his father over pints). Doyle’s incorporation of these newfangled apps, devices, and toys into The Guts’ many subplots is masterful, and his subtle commentary on our overreliance upon them genius. Heck, even a portable sat-nav system is put to comical use.
Jimmy puts on a brave face, but shaves his head and modifies his diet in preparation for the end. His wife teases him about his “cancer pants” tracksuit and his kids cajole him over his feigned hatred of his sis-in-law’s dog. He takes saxophone lessons from a down-on-his-luck drummer, Des, and reunites with Commitments guitarist Liam “Outspan” Foster, who’s moved back with his mother after a messy divorce. The Commitments’ gorgeous blonde backup singer Imelda Quirke also turns up in the ol’ neighborhood and, er, distracts Jimmy from his mounting worries.
When an upcoming Eucharistic Congress anniversary gala brings promise of a papal visit, Jimmy rallies his boss, Noelleen, and sexy intern Ocean to schedule a monumental music fest to coincide. Pulling endless aces from his sleeves, our protagonist scours the land for music recorded in 1932 to release on a souvenir CD—and even arranges to make his own songs when the trail goes cold. Further assistance arrives from unexpected quarters, like the perpetually-quarreling husband-wife punk duo The Halfbreds, and Jimmy’s own guitar-playing son Marvin—whose bands’ success amusingly relies on their ability to act like they’re from Belgium.
Doyle displays such familiarity and tact when dealing with the politics of cancer that one suspects the writer himself must’ve dealt with terminal illness in his personal life at some point. In what becomes an absurd, darkly comic inversion of wedding planning, Jimmy must prioritize who to tell about his illness first, and when, lest he rub anyone’s feelings the wrong way. His need to say goodbye leads him down several seldom-travelled roads, even prompting him to look up his prodigal other brother, Leslie. Jimmy endures the removal of his intestines and battles the subsequent nausea caused by extensive radiation, masking his physical discomfort with his trademark sarcasm and gallows humor. He jests at home about his Cancer for Dummies guidebook, busies himself at recording sessions and the office, and slowly comes to grips with his condition. Moments wherein Jimmy reconciles his gloomy medical status with his confused kids set the waterworks a-flowin’.
But Jimmy soon discovers he’s not as alone as he feels. He’s not the only proprietor forced to downsize, not the only father with money problems, not the only husband whose sex life has cooled, and not the only Irishman fighting cancer. He’s also not the only dad whose kids have their own issues: Marvin is talented but distant. Mahalia is almost too smart and well-behaved for her own good. Middle child Jimmy gets lost in the shuffle, and the chunky Brian (aka “Smokey”) eats too much.
Capitalizing on another opportunity to wrap his Barrytown series in dramatic fashion, Doyle sends the over-the-hill gang of Jimmy, Outspan, Dez, and Les on a weekend-long pilgrimage to a mud-soaked Lollapalooza-like music festival, where the boys relive their youth while encamped in a massive crowd of music-lovers half their age.
Doyle’s use of hyphens instead of quotation marks might unnerve American readers at first, but the banter is so funny and his beats so quick that one catches the rhythm in just a few pages. Irish-Americans in particular will enjoy the colloquialisms (“brilliant,” “your man,” “feckin’ eejit,” etc.) coloring the exchanges. Even Jimmy—whose children ask him to tone down his sarcasm—learns to check his own use of “grand,” because when you’re wrestling with cancer, you’re anything but.
So Brother Rabbitte may be short on intestines here, but the story of his spiritual rebirth compensates for it with heart. The Guts is laugh-out-loud funny, thought-provoking, and unexpectedly touching. We anticipated that Jimmy’s story would once again be rooted in the music of his (and our) life, but we can’t have imagined how emotionally resonating it’d be catching up with him.
Here’s hoping this Barrytown finale also finds its way to film like Doyle’s other beloved books.