For fans of the much-loved book and film, The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who managed the Dublin soul band, is back, but Roddy Doyle’s latest novel finds Jimmy Rabbitte, in his late forties, leading a middle class life and facing a recent diagnosis of bowel cancer. The novel opens with Jimmy at the pub breaking the news to his dad. Doyle cleverly constructs this scene so that Jimmy’s dramatic announcement is meshed with Jimmy Sr’s attempting to catch up with the modern world–more specifically to grasp the concept behind Facebook.
-D’yeh do the Facebook thing?
-What d’yeh mean?
-They were in the pub, in their corner. It wasn’t unusual anymore, having a pint with his father. In the early evening, before he went home after work. he’d phone, or his da would phone. It wasn’t an organized, regular thing.
It had started the day his da got his first mobile. His first call was to Jimmy.
-How’s it going’?
-How are yeh?
-Not too bad. I’m after gettin’ one o’ the mobiles.
-Great. I’m usin’ it now, like.
-Will we go for a pint? To celebrate.
-Grand. Good. yeah.
In between Jimmy Sr trying to understand exactly how someone “gets off with older women on Facebook,” his son drops the bomb of the cancer diagnosis. Jimmy has told his dad first and from that moment he has to break it to the rest of his family–his wife Aoife and their four children, and his business partner, Noeleene. Along the way with his battle with cancer (which includes chemo and surgery) he reconnects with back-up vocalist from The Commitments, Imelda Quirk (“a few kilos heavier“), Outspan (another character from The Commitments) who’s even worse off than Jimmy, finds his long-estranged brother Leslie, decides to take trumpet lessons, and begins a project to track down some Irish songs from 1932.
The Guts is essentially a mid-life crisis novel with the twist being a serious life-threatening (and altering0 experience instead of just the standard affair which grows from ennui, and in spite of the subject matter, the book manages to keep light and positive. It’s all in the attitude, Jimmy seems to think, which probably explains why he keeps telling everyone he’s “grand.” But of course he really isn’t, and Doyle depicts the swings that occur within Jimmy–the bitter and the sweet moments of life as he tries to carry everyone through his experience.
While the novel drifts into sentimentality at times, I’d argue that this is also an aspect of facing one’s own mortality–it’s a bitch to grasp, and the effort comes with understandable self-pity and a little teariness. Doyle was spot on to include sentimentality here, and it serves to reinforce the situation. Jimmy’s search for distractions and goals also seems real–a serious diagnosis leads to a self evaluation and a determination to re-direct one’s life, and we see that force here through Jimmy whose life was drifting along pleasantly enough until the diagnosis. But more than sentimentality, the novel is a nostalgic trip for fans of Doyle’s earlier work. Our hero, Jimmy has managed to surf the boom, the bust and internet commerce through his company, which sells old punk songs for download, and while the book may ostensibly be about disease and aging, on the flip side, it’s also concerned with showing the importance of living every wonderful moment given to us.
Roddy Doyle originally wrote The Commitments as the first part of The Barrytown Trilogy. The Snapper, and The Van (also both turned into film) form the rest of the trilogy. Doyle’s addition to the series now makes this a 4-parter.