Twenty-five years ago, Roddy Doyle, then a schoolteacher, published The Commitments, a novel about an imaginary band from his working-class neighborhood in Dublin. It was the start of an extraordinary trajectory, and the first in the Barrytown Trilogy, about young Jimmy Rabbitte, who founded the band, and his family and cohorts. On January 23, Viking will publish The Guts, the sequel to The Commitments, in which, once again, Jimmy Rabbitte holds center stage.
In The Commitments, the band’s mission was to bring soul music to ’80s Dublin. In The Guts, Doyle’s protagonist has been through a lot: Jimmy is 47, married with four kids, and has just been diagnosed with cancer. His business, kelticpunk.com, tracks down old Irish bands and revives their fortunes, setting up reunion gigs and selling their music on the Internet. The business is struggling through the recent recession and the timing’s right for him to reevaluate his life and contemplate his mortality.
The Commitments became a much-loved film (a musical version of the book has just began a run in London’s West End, drawing large audiences and positive reviews), as did Doyle’s later novels The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991). The next novel, after the trilogy, Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, won the Booker Prize in 1993. His other successful novels include A Star Called Henry (1999) and Oh Play That Thing (2004). Doyle has also published children’s books, he’s working on a television project in the U.K., and he writes for magazines like the New Yorker and McSweeney’s, as well as Metro Eireann, a magazine run by and for immigrants to Ireland.
Doyle has always held strong political views. His television series Family explored domestic violence in Irish homes. The books The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996) and Paula Spencer (2006) further developed these themes. In Dublin he established a creative writing center called Fighting Words in 2009 to encourage people from all backgrounds to write.
Some criticism has focused on the centrality of the male perspective in The Guts. Doyle says he has little time for this. It’s not his job, he says, to “conduct a census.” The gendering and categorization of writing annoys him. He says he despises how marketing is so essential to books these days. If Paula Spencer were to be published now, he imagines, it would have a pink cover. Any innovation is “jumped upon” and spawns endless imitators. He has grown to “hate” book clubs.
This distrust of absolutes extends into The Guts. It’s not clear, for example, if the extramarital affair between Jimmy and Imelda, who is the object of such adoration in The Commitments, is ever discovered. Doyle is content to leave it this way. The duplicity, though, is jarring, especially via the insouciance of their text messages, as Jimmy partly acknowledges: “Not a second of guilt, sitting beside the woman he loved, texting the woman he probably wanted to ride. That was death for you.”
Much of Doyle’s writing is notable for its apparent spontaneity. Conversely, he says that editing is an integral part of his work. “The writing is the self-belief, anxiety is the editor,” he says.
Doyle attends carefully to dialogue. He says he has imaginary conversations all the time, though he doesn’t transcribe them. The character of Mahalia, Jimmy’s teenage daughter, was a particular source of concern for him in The Guts. Too many “likes,” he realized, would have lacked credibility.
—D’you know what a recession is, May?
—Yeah actually, said Mahalia.—I do. A period of—
She lifted her hands and did the quotation marks thing with her index fingers.
She dropped her hands
—economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are, like, reduced.
They stared at her as she shut the door of the fridge.
—That’s brilliant, said Jimmy.—Where’d yeh learn that?
—School, said Mahalia.—Hello!
—Can you say it in Irish?
—The sound of silent laughter, said Mahalia, as she went past him, out.
The Guts is set in the wake of Ireland’s 2008 financial crisis. Doyle considers the country to be “slightly” more renewed these days. The “self-flagellation” has ended—the sense that the economic fallout fit into a narrative of continual failure for Ireland. But in his latest, Doyle contemplates what it means to be Irish. Jimmy’s dismissal of Irish music resonates with the sense of tragedy that Irish emigrants abroad sometimes exploit, particularly in the U.S. “It had none of the Paddy, none of the dishonesty at the core of every Irish song Jimmy had ever heard, except ‘Teenage Kicks’ and maybe ‘The Boys are Back in Town.’ ”
Doyle laughs when reminded of this line, but refutes the possibility that this might also apply to his career. He hasn’t written with that type of self-consciousness since his very first book, which was never published, and which preceded The Commitments—a “terrible combination of Flann O’Brien and Joseph Heller.” The experience, he says, cured him of all pretension and helped him find his voice. In those days, he was a teacher by day and a writer after hours. He says that the work didn’t strain him, but he was pleased to escape the “moaning” of other teachers when he was finally in a position to write full-time.
The Commitments was written in six months. He says that he knew it was good and so self-published it, an unusual strategy at that time. It cost him the price of a secondhand car. Obviously it was an excellent gamble, but he refuses to advise other writers on self-publishing. He will only say that “if you’re tired of being rejected... Why not?”
Though the playwright and short story writer Maeve Brennan was a family relation of Doyle’s, and the New Yorker arrived weekly at his house when he was growing up, there was little evidence that he might become a writer, he says. Teachers didn’t encourage him, nor did anyone else for that matter. But he read voraciously. He says he dreamed only of being a soccer player or a musician. It wasn’t until his early teens that he realized that books had authors, and that he could write one.
Though now, for the first time since his writing career began, he is not working on a novel. He says that he just doesn’t feel a “burning need” at the moment. He is happy with The Guts.