Having a Belfast mam and still having a yearning to claim my Irish passport, I couldn’t not join in with Reading Ireland Month 2021, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. I had long planned to read a modern Irish classic, but it just didn’t do it for me, so I quickly revised my plans – and I’m glad I can cross Ireland off my list for the European Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader.
I’ll begin with a few comments on my first DNF of the year.
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
This novel was written between 1939-40, but remained unpublished until after the author’s death. Finally in print in 1967, it has been hailed with paeans of praise as a masterpiece of the absurd. Theoretically, it’s a murder mystery, involving a comedy village police force – it begins with a murder – so far so good. But once I got to grips with the narrator, a scholar who has returned to claim the family farm after the death of his parents, I lasted 65 pages out of 206. If the book had stuck at the level of a comedy caper involving incompetent policemen like Shakespeare’s Dogberry in Much Ado, I’d probably have read on. BUT, O’Brien, for me, tried to be too clever. He had his scholar narrator be a disciple of a fictional philosopher, ‘de Selby’, who is quoted at every turn, with copious quotes from said philosopher’s works in the footnotes. I didn’t find what I read funny at all, nor absurd really – just tedious.
The Guts by Roddy Doyle
As the antidote to getting stuck on any Irish novel, I recommend a dose of Doyle! His mastery of Irish dialogue is sublime, written with dashes rather than punctuation marks, the conversations his characters have are so realistic, yet comic through and through.
To fully appreciate The Guts, you need to have met the Rabitte family before. The lead character is Jimmy Rabbitte of The Commitments, now a family man of 47 with a lovely wife Aoife and four kids. The Commitments was the first volume in Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, in which young Jimmy gets a soul band together, followed by The Snapper, and then my favourite, The Van, in which Jimmy’s da, Jimmy Sr, tried to run a fish and chip van with his mate (I must re-read The Van). I think my favourite bits of The Guts involved conversations between Jimmy and Jimmy Sr, detailed in sweary Dublin brogue, but in which everything is ‘just grand’. As the novel begins, Jimmy is trying to explain Facebook to Jimmy Sr in the pub, who has just got a mobile phone.
His mobile buzzed and crawled an eighth of an inch across the table.
–There’s the cunt now.
He picked up the phone and stared at it. He took his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket, put them on and stared at it again.
–Your mother, he said –She wants milk.
He put the phone down and took off his glasses.
–She used to be able to walk to the shops herself, he said. –She was very good at it.
–He texts yeh back, said Jimmy,–Yeah, or somethin’. An’ you text him. Grand.
–That’s righ’, said Jimmy Sr,–Tha’ sounds like a day in my life.
–Well, that’s social networkin’, said Jimmy.
The Guts, although very funny, has a rich vein of tragicomedy running through it, for Jimmy has been diagnosed with early bowel cancer. He’ll have surgery and chemo, and is determined to put on a brave front. He’s determined to go back to work – he had founded a company called ‘Kelticpunk’ rediscovering and marketing Irish punk songs and bands via downloads. It went well, and he sold 3/4 of the company to a colleague, Noeleene, but continues to manage a couple of their rediscoveries and organise a few gigs for them.
Although unlikely to die soon after his treatment, the cancer diagnosis does see Jimmy reevaluate certain aspects of his life. He takes trumpet lessons from his broke friend Des, he has to become a dog person, he bumps into Imelda Quirke from the Commitments and there is a spark (of lust) there despite him loving Aoife so much. He also has his big idea, to bring out an album of 1932 recordings to celebrate the Dublin International Eucharist Congress of that year, as the Pope may be coming to Ireland for another congress. It’s the latter that happily drives the last quarter of the novel, and it’s lovely to meet Outspan from the first novel again.
It was such a pleasure to be back in the company of the Rabittes again! (8.5/10)
Read also: Kim’s review at Reading Matters.
Roddy Doyle, The Guts (Jonathan Cape, 2013). 328 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)