The Commitments are back, and they’re not doing so grand this time.
Jimmy Rabbitte, the soul aficionado and spirited entrepreneur from Dublin’s Barrytown district that Roddy Doyle first introduced in THE COMMITMENTS in 1987, is 47 now. He has a wife, Aoife, and four kids; they’ve moved from Barrytown, settled in a lovely little neighborhood, and invested in a music promotion business together. Jimmy’s father, Jimmy Sr., puts the situation in perspective: “I noticed yeh grunted there when you were sittin’ down. An’ there’s a lot more of your forehead on view than there used to be. Happens to us all. It’s desperate. Men are hit particularly bad. So, but. It isn’t all bad, is what I’m tryin’ to say.”
It’s not, except that Jimmy has bowel cancer, which, despite knowing better, he desperately fears is killing him, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He doesn’t know who to tell, or how --- his father first, or his wife? He doesn’t know what having 80 percent of his intestinal tract removed will do to him. He doesn’t know what will happen to his family. And Jimmy is not alone --- Outspan, his Commitment compatriot, has cancer, too, and his is almost certainly terminal.
"For Doyle, the slums of Dublin have long been a rich vein to mine, but it’s family and friendship, human tenderness and the power of music that are the truest trademark of his work. In THE GUTS, readers will find them all --- and just enough raucous rock and roll to ensure they’ll enjoy the show."
Yet the illness is, in a way, an energizing thing for Jimmy, as he takes an opportunity to grow closer to his family. He gets a trumpet as a gift from Aoife and learns to play. He watches one son, Marvin, grow into his own as a musician, and tags along with another, Brian, on a Christmas walk with Brian’s new satellite navigation system. “Six in the morning, out with his youngest, disobeying a brand new sat nav. And none of it had been his idea. He breathed deep; he hauled the tears back in. This was his Christmas present.”
Doyle’s work, in many ways, has not changed much since his late ’80s debut. The novel, like his others, is almost all dialogue, quick and sharp back-and-forths between characters that show their affection for one another clearly, even through the never-ending stream of profanity and endless teasing. The book unwinds slowly, following closely the way Jimmy attempts to deal with his affliction. His thoughts are rarely in one place --- while conversing with Aoife, he’ll think of texting his ex-bandmate, Imelda, or remember a chat from three years back, or collapse into sentimentality at the thought of his kids.
But his characters have grown, and Doyle’s writing grew with them. Gone is the feisty rebellion of Jimmy’s youth --- it’s been replaced with a new energy, a tenacity to hold on to his family and his life. It’s a distinctly middle-aged trouble, and part of the greatness of the author’s achievement here is his ability to come back to these same characters, with nearly the same style, and not have them appear as has-been ’80s musicians, ragged and coked up and hoping for one last ride. He knows his characters too well to allow them to slide into clichés. Yes, Jimmy is still feisty and dogged and a bit of a dreamer, but he is also warm, affectionate and thoughtful --- and, above all, committed.
Doyle, too, ably walks the fine line between sentimental and maudlin. A book about a potentially imminent middle-aged demise could easily showcase characters mired in self-pity. Yet, despite their worries and fears, Jimmy and his family are still funny. This is a book about death, and it’s impossible not to laugh while reading it.
For Doyle, the slums of Dublin have long been a rich vein to mine, but it’s family and friendship, human tenderness and the power of music that are the truest trademark of his work. In THE GUTS, readers will find them all --- and just enough raucous rock and roll to ensure they’ll enjoy the show.
Reviewed by John Maher on January 24, 2014