Roddy Doyle’s “The Guts” celebrates the return of Jimmy Rabbitte, creator-manager of the eponymous Dublin band that brought white soul to the masses in Doyle’s 1987 novel, “The Commitments,” and Alan Parker’s 1991 movie. (He’ll be reading from “The Guts” this Thursday, February 6, at Brookline Booksmith.)
It’s 2011 and Jimmy is now 47, living with his smart, lovely wife Aoife and a house full of teenagers—Marvin, Mahalia, Brian and Jimmy—“in a middle class area” of Dublin. Still a music man, he’s part owner and joint manager of kelticpunk.com, and things are grand. “Brilliant,” Jimmy would say. Then he finds out he’s got bowel cancer.
“The Guts” opens in a neighborhood pub, where Jimmy tells his father, Jimmy Sr., about his diagnosis. The setting (a bar in Barrytown, a working class area in north Dublin) and scene will be familiar to fans of Doyle, who tells many of his stories with mordant, minimalist dialogue that can be poignant and is almost always profane.
Things could be worse, he assures his da.
—So they say, said Jimmy,
–The doctors an' tha'. The Specialists. The Team.
–What colour are their jerseys?
Jimmy couldn't think of an answer.
–It's terrible, said his da…. Stop being so [expletive] reasonable.”
The book follows Jimmy through surgery, chemotherapy, and the wretched side effects of cancer treatment. When he isn’t flat on his back, he is clumsy, muddle-headed and exhausted, careering from bouts of giddy optimism to moments of dread. His awkward attempts to reassure his family upset them instead. Jimmy doesn’t think he’s dying but he knows he could be, which makes him hyperkinetic and impulsive. He tracks down his long-estranged brother Les in England. Takes up the trumpet. Reconnects after 20 years with two of the Commitments: rhythm guitarist Outspan Foster, who has stage four lung cancer, and the still-gorgeous vocalist Imelda Quirk. This being a male midlife crisis novel, Imelda and Jimmy have a brief (seemingly inconsequential) extramarital fling.
Kelticpunk.com flourished during Ireland’s economic boom, and Jimmy made a good living seeking out moribund bands from the 80s and selling their long lost albums and singles. But demand for songs like the Irregulars’ “F*** England” (B-side: “F*** Scotland and Wales”) has diminished in recession-era Ireland, “a small country on the brink of collapse.” Jimmy and Aoife are broke, and the music business itself is foundering. (To his chagrin, the only product making money for kelticpunk is Celtic Rock—sentimental “didley-eye music” about mythic Irish kings and conquerors.)
But Jimmy hasn’t lost his hustle, or his touch for making musical moments happen. He concocts a scheme to salvage kelticpunk.com, and pulls it off with the help of two of his sons. Hoping to cash in on a wave of recessionary nostalgia he thinks will accompany the 80th anniversary of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, he compiles a collection of forgotten music from Ireland circa 1932. “Our own blues,” he calls it. And when he can’t find a Depression-era precursor to Irish punk, he invents one for the CD, “More Songs about Sex and Emigration.” “Will it, like, be illegal?” asks his oldest son Marvin, whose band records the “rediscovered” tune “I’m Going to Hell.”
The Eucharistic Congress turns out to be a bust, and response to the CD is modest, with one exception: “I’m Going to Hell,” sung by Moanin’ at Midnight, a faux Bulgarian rock-blues band led by Marvin Rabbitte, has gone viral on YouTube. “The Guts” wraps up at a massive outdoor music festival where Jimmy, Outspan, Les and Des, another middle aged musician dad, watch Marvin the Bulgarian belt out the "resurrected" blues number.
The episode is the high point in an overly drawn out climax. “The Guts” was released in England and Ireland last summer, timed to the London premiere of the stage version of “The Commitments,” and that may be why it feels unfinished. The novel is a sequel of sorts. But readers who aren’t acquainted with the novels and movies in Doyle’s “Barrytown Trilogy” (“The Commitments,” “The Snapper” and “The Van”) are barely introduced to key characters like Jimmy’s da, the Commitments, and Barrytown itself that also figure in “The Guts.”
Too many skeins trail from the book’s very loosely knit plot. Is it really likely, for instance, that Jimmy would cross paths with two of the Commitments for the first time in two decades in a city the size of Dublin (population 530,000)? Or that Aoife isn’t aware of his affair? Why don’t we learn what Les has been up to since he went missing? And what is the state of Jimmy’s health?
Many of the characters in this book—including Aoife and the kids— are lightly sketched, which is disappointing. Doyle writes particularly well about large, messy families, and he created two of the more memorable voices in contemporary fiction in the 10-year-old title character in the Booker winner “Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha”; and Paula Spencer, a battered, alcoholic widow who recounts her story in “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.” I would have preferred spending more time in the cacophony of Jimmy’s household than at the music fest with the aging lads ragging one another, dropping enough f-bombs to rival “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and dismissing anything from irritating behavior to an unappetizing side dish with the “c-word.”
Still, it’s hard not to enjoy return of Jimmy Rabbitte the impresario, or feel the exuberance of the music fest. Scenes of Jimmy beating a fast retreat from a Celtic Rock performance (“Riverdance" for Nazis,” he thinks); of Outspan, clutching an oxygen tank as he’s hoisted in a chair above the heads of a cheering crowd, and of Jimmy watching Marvin make his debut star turn on a musical stage are singularly funny, engaging and insightful — Doyle at his best.
A former Boston Globe arts reporter, Maureen Dezell is the author of the critically acclaimed “Irish America: Coming Into Clover,” and a senior editor at Boston College. Her website is maureendezell.com.