It’s probably redundant to tell you that The Guts is the sequel to The Commitments (and, tangentially, to The Snapper, The Van, and the short story, ‘The Deportees’ in the eponymous collection); the book’s even being marketed alongside a new Commitments musical, if you’re up for a 1980s-Irish-revival singalong. Doyle’s most famous creation, Jimmy Rabbitte, Ireland’s fictional and brilliantly catastrophic Tony Wilson wanna-be, is back: now he’s married, middle-aged, working in the thick of (in a manner of speaking) the music industry, and he’s just been diagnosed with bowel cancer. To haul out a horrible cliché, this is a bitter-sweet novel: a state-of-the-nation, state-of-the-age recession appraisal, and a loving portrayal of an imperfect, foul-mouthed, unstoppable, loving and lovable old bastard.
It’s hard to say much without spoilers, so I’ll err on the side of brevity: we open in a pub, of course, where Jimmy’s telling his dad, Jimmy Sr, that he’s sick. Then we follow our hero through surgery, chemo and nausea as he tries to negotiate his job (he runs a website that reissues lost Irish rock music, affectionately known to Jimmy and his wife, Aoife, as shiterock.com), his family life, and, you know, his crashing sense of existential horror. He’s still a music fanatic, hunting for the next big idea that’ll hurl him into the annals (he takes up the trumpet in this book) and he’s still living in Dublin, though he’s gone a little upmarket from his Barrytown days. There are a few throwbacks to the past—Imelda Quirk, the girl all the male Commitments were after, shows her face, as does Outspan, or Liam, as he prefers to be called, who’s got a much worse dose of cancer than Jimmy. It’s not an enormously plot-driven book—there are plots, of course, and numerous ones at that, and all of them compelling, but The Guts is all about character: Jimmy’s realisation of his mortality and the way he manages his various relationships, and the way those relationships are shown (honestly, with humour and with pathos) is the heart of the book. It’s called The Guts because of the bowels, natch, but it’s also Jimmy’s commentary on his own life: what’s he had the guts to do? Will he, now, at what might have been the last minute, take some risks, for better or worse? (Yes, of course he will, and there’s the book.) It’s a mid-life-crisis book, which is kind of like a Bildungsroman (the romance, the stress of the romance, the will-he-won’t-he-fuck-it-all-up tension, the gigs and the swearing) but with more of a knowing edge.
It’s a risky business, going for the sequel, and can be seen as a lazy one—Doyle is, of course, giving the fans what they’ve long been asking for. In literary terms, both in so far as it’s a what-are-they-doing-now revival and given the social aspect of it all (the music, the pubs, the group of misfits), it reminded me of Alan Warner’s The Stars In The Bright Sky: in both cases, it’s hard to assess the merits of the new book because the readers’ fondness for the old one and for the characters partly eclipses the individual qualities of the new one. Nostalgia is a double-edged blade: Doyle ducks it, mostly, by making Jimmy a nostalgia merchant, commenting constantly on the sad old men harking back to the shit music of their youths while Jimmy laughs and turns a profit; by the end, Jimmy’s sympathetic to the old fools, and so are we sympathetic to Doyle, because while a return to The Commitments might sound like a cynical marketing ploy, there is something to it simply because there is something to Jimmy himself. Jimmy’s also still rocking his hatred for Irish revivalism and traditional nostalgia, which is guaranteed to garner a few nodding heads amongst its native readers. This is a very self-aware revival novel indeed. And despite this, like Warner’s book, The Guts does stand on its own merits. I think much of the humour would be lost on somebody who came to it clean, but its dominant theme—the forty-odd year-old negotiating family and work life and serious illness—is a theme that resonates above and beyond our affection for the Rabbitte clan. Doyle’s books aren’t by any means all the same, but for this one he’s returned to the spare, almost script-like style of his first hit, and it’s a huge stylistic success (even if you’re not fond of this kind of thing) because the man’s ear for dialogue is uncanny. He packs more emotion into a simple ‘yeah’, or an ‘I know’ than many writers do into entire poetic speeches. Jimmy’s inability to express himself adequately, Aoife’s tenderness around him, his kids’ grunting emotion, the stiff awkwardness in the exchanges between Jimmy and his estranged brother—it’s monosyllabic and laden all the way to the end. Plus it’s funny—and this is, after all, an optimistic book; it’s about grabbing life by the guts and making the most of it.
The bad? Doyle’s sometimes a very of-the-minute writer—he did it with Italia ’90 in The Van and he does it with London 2012 here, and he gets great comic mileage out of his older characters getting into texting and Facebook, but, funny as that is, it does feel, now and then, overdone, and I wonder if it’ll still be so funny in twenty years’ time. Plus it’s all very long, clocking in at over three hundred pages, and while it’s a fast, funny (and sad) read, I missed the sharp brevity of its predecessor, and I thought a more brutal edit wouldn’t have gone astray. The last third (the music plot; the festival section) felt underdeveloped and played too much for laughs: clearly Doyle was injecting dynamism and hope into Jimmy’s life, which is good, but I missed the realism and heartache of the earlier parts, and some particular threads felt unresolved. The Outspan/Imelda inclusions, and Imelda in particular, felt tailor-made for the fans rather than fitting in a more organic way into the text.
Any Cop? Jimmy’s no Rabbit Angstrom, by which I mean that this ought probably be the end of him, lest Doyle flog a dead horse (I’d say rabbit, but I’ve got some prose standards), but in the meantime he’s a hell of an entertaining narrator. The Guts isn’t perfect, but it’s a great read: it’ll make you laugh, guaranteed, and it might well get you all teary, and it’s an excellent glimpse into contemporary Dublin life. Despite my various criticisms, I enjoyed it and I’d recommend it, and I’m assuming you’ve all read The Commitments by now? Because if not, that’s double homework. Get on it.