Irish author Roddy Doyle caused a sensation with his first novel, “The Commitments” (1987), and rightly so. Novels about pop music too often are weak riffs on fame and celebrity, or (worse) opportunities for the author to show off his discographical knowledge. In imagining a short-lived Dublin band playing soul covers, Doyle knew that music’s chief virtue as a novelistic subject is that it’s a pathway to identity. “The Commitments” is pugnacious, funny and brisk, but its biggest thrill comes from watching how the characters’ horizons broaden the moment the lights go down and the amps fire up.
“The Guts,” Doyle’s moodier, black-humored sequel to “The Commitments,” is about how hard life will work to whomp all that upbeat stuff out of you. The hero again is Jimmy Rabbitte, the manager of that ill-fated band, and in the second decade of the new century, he’s mainly just feeling ill. As the story opens, he’s 47, married with four kids and recently diagnosed with bowel cancer. Though he’s made a bundle with a Web site dedicated to music by obscure but beloved Irish punk and pop acts, the recession has cut into sales. “The Guts” is twice as long as “The Commitments,” and its size is a representation of the way aging attracts barnacles of duty and disappointment.
Nostalgia is a business that runs on good feelings, and good feelings are hard to come by in “The Guts,” both for Jimmy individually and Ireland collectively. But what’s bad for Jimmy is good for Doyle: Jimmy is once again having an identity crisis, unsure of whether he should be grateful for what he has or panicked about his decay. When his wife gives him a copy of “Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies,” he can’t bring himself to read it. “The optimistic stuff is just fluff, and I’m better off not knowin’ the pessimistic stuff,” he says. “Cos it’s way more believable.”
Jimmy’s cancer was caught early, but the pessimistic stuff keeps coming. The hereditary nature of the disease means Jimmy needs to reconnect with his estranged brother, who turns out to have had the same diagnosis. At a chemo appointment, Jimmy runs into Outspan, the Commitments’ former guitarist, who has lung cancer — that wasn’t caught early. An accidental meeting with one of his old band’s sultry backup singers leads to a fling that doesn’t serve him well. Where the dialogue in “The Commitments” was thick with youthful boasts and declamations, conversations in “The Guts” reveal Doyle’s knack for adults’ awkward pauses and tendency to talk around problems. People keep asking Jimmy how he is, and he keeps saying, “Grand,” though he’s clearly not.
Despite all this, “The Guts” is a comic novel — multiple kinds of a comic novel. Scenes with a wacky, sitcom-like tone recur. (Whoops, Jimmy texted the wrong person! Uh-oh, the aging husband-and-wife punk duo is squabbling again!) One key subplot turns on Jimmy’s attempt to compile an album to capitalize on the 80th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s Eucharistic Conference in Dublin. “We could trace the roots of punk to some whistlin’ bogger in 1932,” Jimmy says. When punky tunes by whistlin’ boggers from 1932 prove hard to come by, he concocts a preposterous scheme to invent one. The tune goes viral, leading to some shticky moments involving Jimmy’s dissembling. (Oh, for the day when “going viral” is no longer the deus ex machina of the moment.)
Yet even the shtickier set pieces reveal something about how at sea Jimmy is, how his brush with mortality has unsettled his feelings about music and relationships. And when Doyle drills deep into that material, his humor is smarter and more cutting.
After Outspan mentions his discovery of dating sites for terminal cancer patients, Jimmy is brightened by his old friend’s hooking up:
“D’yeh still see her?”
“Ah. How come?”
“She’s dead. Yeh [expletive] eejit.”
“The Guts” concludes with Jimmy, Outspan and his friends and family attending the Electric Picnic, a massive Irish outdoor rock festival headlined by (har, har) the Cure. “It was funny how they’d all been tamed by age,” Jimmy thinks as he sets up a tent, and perhaps inevitably, Doyle is a little more tame as well. “The Commitments” hit with the force of a vintage Sam & Dave single, while “The Guts” works in a more restrained, Mumfordesque register.
But, Doyle wants to ask, are you going to begrudge the happiness of a middle-aged, stage-four guy who lugs an oxygen tank to a concert? Doyle once knew music was a way to find yourself. He now knows it as a way to remind yourself who you are — and, if need be, settle accounts before you shove off.
“The Guts” is full of reminiscences, but Doyle’s characters’ emotions run deeper than mere nostalgia. “Decades of solid opinion were turning to mush,” Jimmy thinks close to the end of the novel, taking in the festival’s final acts. Doyle is writing about his hero’s musical tastes, but it’s true about everything else in his life as well. The feat of “The Guts” is Doyle’s ability to create in Jimmy a character who hangs together even while so many of his certainties have collapsed. And to get a few good jokes in as well.
Athitakis is a reviewer living in Phoenix.
On Feb. 3 at 7 p.m., Roddy Doyle will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC. Call 202-364-1919.
By Roddy Doyle
Viking. 328 pp. $27.95