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Deadly Irish Humor Spikes Doyle’s ‘Commitments’ Update

Roddy Doyle
Author Roddy Doyle at the press launch of "The Commitments" at The Palace Theatre in London. Photographer: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

“D’yeh do the Facebook thing?” is the opening question of “The Guts,” Roddy Doyle’s new novel.

The dilemmas of social-media relationships form the very-2013 backdrop to this update of “The Commitments,” Doyle’s first book, which shot him to literary stardom in 1987. That tale about a working-class Dublin band was made into a film in 1991 and will have its debut as a musical at London’s Palace Theatre in September.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the Irish hustler who shaped the soulful Commitments, is now 47. He’s still in Barrytown, a fictionalized version of the north Dublin suburb of Kilbarrack, where Doyle grew up, and still in the record business. He has strong tastes, which make him a “music fascist” according to his family. He has a nice house, a loving wife and four children.

None of this makes for a very dramatic read, so Doyle stirs things up. Jimmy drops the bombshell on page 10: He needs treatment for bowel cancer. That would be plot enough, but there’s more.

He runs into former band mates, including the still-sexy singer Imelda Quirke. His son Marvin’s band plays at a rock festival. He’s learning the trumpet and has a mission to find old Irish music. The text races along.

Jimmy was last seen in “The Van” in 1991. Freed from his 1980s time warp, he wrestles with iPads, smartphones and YouTube. The novel’s going to date as fast as the technology.

Rabbitte v. Rabbit

Doyle has now written as many novels about the Rabbitte family as John Updike did about Rabbit Angstrom. He pares his writing to little more than the dialogue. He hates what James Joyce called “perverted commas” and gives pages of straight speech like a play script:

-- Will we go for a pint? To celebrate.

-- Grand. Good. Yeah.

Jimmy says “grand” all the time, even when he’s suffering from chemotherapy. We wonder that he really thinks, but all inner thoughts and descriptions are left off the page, as is the meticulously detailed backstory.

Doyle is 55. This is his midlife crisis book. The key phrase comes when he writes of a guy wanting to return to his roots as a punk musician, like “the howling kid inside every middle-aged man.”

It’s also Doyle’s recession book, after setting previous works in the Irish booms of the past.

“Nostalgia’s always big in a recession,” he has one character remark. The author loves his music as much as Rabbitte and there are constant references to rock: the Who, the Stooges.

“Every half-decent band should have a dead guitarist,” the musician Outspan says at the end. It’s a bittersweet comment, because Outspan is sick with an illness likely to be terminal.

The best thing is that Irish humor: deadpan, earnest, often spot on. As the Commitments would put it, “deadly.”

“The Guts” is published by Jonathan Cape in the U.K. (328 pages, 12.99 pounds.) It will be published in the U.S. by Viking in January. To preorder this book in North America, click here.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Amanda Gordon’s Hampton’s Scene.

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