Roddy Doyle’s not afraid to branch out: he’s done straight up literary fiction, kids’ books, a biography of his own parents, historical fiction, TV scripts, film scripts, plays, Roy Keane’s autobiography (a co-production with the man himself), and outright oddities – the latter including the pair of Two Pints books: collections of dialogues that weren’t quite scripts and weren’t quite flash fiction, but were definitely very funny. Charlie Savage isn’t too far removed from these. It was commissioned initially as a weekly column in the Irish Independent’s Weekend magazine, and the book itself is a compilation of a year’s worth of the eponymous Charlie’s antics. Though antics isn’t quite the word: Charlie’s a pretty sedentary sixty, and shouting at the radio is about as antic as it gets. What we get here is fifty-two 800-ish word stories, detailing his weeks and his memories: it’s quiet, plot-wise, but – as you’d expect – its culminative observational comedy is a guaranteed page-turner.
So: Charlie and the wife – as he puts it – have five kids (four sons and the daughter), an assortment of grandkids and an indeterminate amount of dogs. The wife’s tough and wry; the daughter’s determined to sort her dad’s life out; the dogs have eaten the garden. Charlie’s a family man, likes a pint, and is guiltily nostalgic about his first girlfriend (lost to his younger brother). He’s adapting with a token show of begrudgery to the digital world. He’s kind. His best pal and drinking buddy, not long widowed, tells Charlie that he identifies as a woman; Charlie dutifully invites him shopping. His grandson, aged three, wants a tattoo, so Charlie volunteers to ‘mind it for him’: on Christmas Eve, he gets SpongeBob SquarePants inked on his chest. Himself and the wife go on holiday at home: they tell the family they’re in Malaga and barricade themselves inside watching box-sets. The daughter sticks videos online of her dad yelling at the radio and he goes viral as The Shouter. There’s no robberies or car-chases or torrid affairs; this is domestic working-class retired life, and it’s a happy one.
Doyle’s a genius with dialogue and voice – you’ll never find a writer who’ll beat his North Dublin vernacular. His comic timing is superb. His prose is simple; his skill with narrative, even with these very short pieces, is slick. Here’s Charlie after the tattoo, when the hair’s started to grow back over SpongeBob:
“It’s grey, like, and it made SpongeBob look like he’d died in the night. The poor kid cried when he saw it and he told his mammy – the daughter – that I’d murdered SpongeBob.
–I didn’t touch SpongeBob, I said.
The women looked at me like I was Jimmy Savile so now I’m having to shave my chest twice a day. I’m standing in front of the mirror and I’ve cut myself twice already – poor oul’ SpongeBob is bleeding to death. I’m half-thinking of carving him out and just giving him to the child in a plastic bag when the text arrives.
He’s also very nifty at slipping in a hefty dollop of social critique amongst the one-liners. There’s one piece where Charlie realises a woman and her kids parked over the road are actually living in their car, and his quiet upset is poignant. He gets in a dig at Brexit and a few at Trump, not to mention Fine Gael, and though the nature of the newspaper serial probably curtailed the extent of all this, there’s enough dotted about to suggest that Charlie, however restricted his immediate world, is far from oblivious to what’s unfolding around him. He uses his Facebook Shouter page to lambast the banks over the housing crisis.
It’s a minor book, as Doyle’s go – he’s been working on a new novel alongside it – but it’s not a particularly slight one; if you were a Doyle newbie, say, and wanted a taster, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It isn’t substantial enough to make the top ten, and though the (presumably unedited) serial format means that several of the pieces are somewhat repetitive (plot recaps between episodes, so to speak), it doesn’t careen madly off the road either (I’m looking at you, Smile). It’s funny and uplifting, with sufficient black humour and swearing to keep it safely away from the ranks of the dreaded ‘up-lit’.
Any Cop?: Course it is.