In Roddy Doyle's new novel, The Guts, Jimmy Rabbitte is back.
The man behind The Commitments Rabbitte is now 47 years old, a husband, a father of four, and the founder of KelticPunk, an online business that locates old celtic bands and re-energises, digitises and flogs their (often awful) back catalogues. And as the title of Doyle’s new novel The Guts blackly alludes to, Jimmy also has bowel cancer.
The Irish author “didn’t want it to be a sequel, or anything like that”, reasoning that “it would be pretty awful, I think, to bring [The Commitments] all together”. Not that fans of Doyle’s 1986 novel will have much to complain about: Rabbitte encounters two of the band’s number, Outspan and Imelda, in The Guts; in Jimmy Jazz, a specially commissioned e-book short, Jimmy and Outspan attend a Keith Jarrett concert with comic consequences; and in October, London’s Palace Theatre will premiere a stage adaptation of The Commitments, adapted by Doyle himself.
“I’d just started The Guts when I decided to write the script for The Commitments,” Doyle says. “I broke the spine of the book, so to speak, and started re-writing the story. It put Jimmy to the front of my head...writing the script was, to an extent, almost like research for the novel.”
One area Doyle did have to research concerned Jimmy’s medical condition. “Not having cancer myself, and not having gone through chemo, I think I over-wrote, you know. I did a certain amount of reading...I overdid it then, in the absence of experience.” Yet the novel deals with cancer with a vivacity and humour that keeps Jimmy sane – and keeps the narrative engaging. After Rabbitte's last bout of chemotherapy, the thread, reflecting his scattered mental state, dissipates – “[it’s] deliberately disjointed,” says Doyle, “his mental state comes across rather than me trying to describe it.”
The embryo of The Guts was formed almost a decade ago. A file dating back to 2004 contains ideas for Jimmy’s maturation; in 2007, Doyle’s short story The Deportees encounters Rabbitte in his thirties, with a young family. “I sat on the idea for a while then things came together,” the author says. “I think when it became apparent that things were going bad economically, and the word recession started being used again...it took me back to when I wrote The Commitments in 1986, when Ireland was in such a sphere of recession that those of us who weren’t economists weren’t aware of the fact there was one. We just thought that was life in Ireland.
“I wrote those books during a time of recession so it struck me that one way to enter another was to add years to Jimmy Rabbitte, and see how he is getting on, what pressures he is under—other than the normal ones of getting older, and rearing a family.”
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Familial relationships are the crux of The Guts – be it Jimmy’s clipped, blunt exchanges with his father (who was “a pleasure to bring back ...a character I had always liked”, Doyle says), the unswerving support offered by his wife Aoife during his chemotherapy, or his attempts to reunite with his estranged brother Les, resident in England for almost two decades. It’s a humorous, pacy novel, which – like many of Doyle’s previous novels, including the Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – eschews lengthy description in favour of snappy dialogue.
It’s a technique which Doyle claims is “the best way to keep the momentum going, rather than to interrupt it constantly with physical descriptions of people...It gradually came to me that I didn’t really care what Jimmy looked like, as such. It didn’t matter too much – I didn’t give him eye colour, hair colour, a height. The best way to get characters alive is to get them talking.” It’s a considerable skill of Doyle’s, the ability to create characters that are engaging and three-dimensional while having little by way of introspective description. The writer says he was inspired by his time teaching, during which he would listen to children all day – “I’ve always enjoyed the nuances and the little differences, the little gaps and the hesitancies, the awkwardness . . . stories they told, phrases, bits of slang. That fed into my writing.”
One of the marked differences between The Guts and The Commitments – or indeed all of The Barrytown Trilogy, of which it is the first – is the proliferation of new methods of communication. Jimmy is mesmerised with iPads, shoots off emails, and converses via text. “The days when you would phone up, or go around and ring the bell, are gone,” Doyle says. “If I was to re-write The Commitments today, Jimmy would have a smartphone, and in many ways that would be the end of the story. All the things he would do, the organizing of gigs… there would be none of the shoe leather, the moving from A to B, there would be less of getting the band together – far less of the anxiety of ‘will they, won’t they turn up’.”
It’s one of The Guts’ clever evolutions; Doyle cleverly carries the aspects that made the successful trilogy so compelling into a modern-day setting, complete with all of its technological trimmings. “I positioned Jimmy at a crossroads between how it used to be, and how it is now. It was interesting. He’s gone from vinyl and the sweat of gigs to a more abstract thing.” Jimmy’s job, essentially a digital archiver and distributor of old music – often only available in arcane physical forms such as cassette or vinyl – allows him to retain his contagious passion for music, which gives the novel much of its impetus.
“In terms of sheer fun, I really enjoyed making up the fictional music,” Doyle says, evoking a parallel with Jimmy, who while searching for tracks that defined Ireland in the 1930s, “was looking around for the alternative Irish history, and then like a lot of writers, he thought: ‘if I can’t find it, I’ll just make it up’. I had a great time doing that.”
The music looks set to continue, too – and not only when The Commitments hits the stage later this year. Jimmy’s son is in a band, Moanin’ at Midnight, who have become a YouTube sensation, and Jimmy himself has taken up the trumpet. One thing is for sure – he won’t go quietly.
The Guts is out on 8 August, published by Jonathan Cape.