Love, by Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, 336 pp, €18.99, ISBN: 978-1787332287
Deservedly, Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier received serious accolades from reviewers and readers alike when it was published last year. Set in Algeciras, Spain, the novel rings with an enticingly exotic note. But it also has a whiff of high literariness about it as its central characters, a pair of superannuated Irish drug lords “in their low fifties” inscribed in the act of conversationally unravelling and re-ravelling their mostly deplorable lives, clearly resemble Samuel Beckett’s brace of bowler-topped tramps in Waiting for Godot. (Students of Beckett will remember that the prototypes for Vladimir and Estragon actually appear not on stage but in the pages of his first novel written in French, Mercier et Camier, completed in 1946 though not published until 1970 and not published in English until 1974.) Both the structure and the texture of Barry’s novel call to mind Vivian Mercier’s famous observation regarding Godot: “nothing happens, twice.”
Interestingly, Roddy Doyle, who provides a front cover blurb for Night Boat ‑ “Brilliant!” ‑ composed his latest novel around a comparable tableau. Centred on a night of Dublin pubcrawling by two longtime friends in their later fifties, a regular affair of history and habit being enacted for what may be the final time, Love is a substantial standalone novel in its own right. But in the context of his overall body of work, it also represents the intersecting of two arcs, one thematic and the other narrative, that Doyle has been drawing and drawing out over the better part of the last fifteen years.
Thematically, Love extends a thread that Doyle began to spin in earnest as early as the title story of his first collection of short stories, The Deportees. Published in 2007, “The Deportees” brings back to literary life Jimmy Rabbitte Jr, the winning protagonist of Doyle’s widely acclaimed first novel, The Commitments (1987). Twenty years after the collapse, under the weight of their own promise, of his brainchild Dublin soul band The Commitments, the irrepressible Jimmy experiences an epiphany after being bumped into and knocked down by a Romanian on Parnell Street then run over by an Italian bicycle courier. Helped up by the Romanian lad and an African woman, Jimmy, ever the impresario, envisions a new band dedicated to the American dustbowl music of Woody Guthrie that will personify the fully-emerged multi-ethnic demographic of Dublin in the new millennium: “Jimmy’s head was hopping as he stood up … But he was grinning. Jimmy had his group.”
And Roddy Doyle had a character through whom he could begin to explore the anxieties of men aging in a place ‑ that place being primarily northside Dublin – and in a time of rapid shifts in the tectonic plates underpinning Irish society. Now married with three children (a fourth is born in the course of “The Deportees”), Jimmy seems for the moment impervious to the condition that Thoreau etched indelibly in Walden a century-and-a-half earlier: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (Incidentally, Daniel Corkery deployed that observation as the epigraph to his novel The Threshold of Quiet in 1917.) But that would change six years later in his next literary appearance, in the pages of Doyle’s novel The Guts (2013). At forty-seven years old Jimmy is diagnosed with bowel cancer and is thus forced to face as husband and father, son, brother, and friend ‑ the conventional social markers of maleness ‑ the stark reality of his mortality. Doyle traces how Jimmy’s surgery and then chemotherapy treatment deepen his relationships with his family: his wife Aoife; his father Jimmy Sr, who stole the show in both The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991); his children Marvin, Jimmy Two, Mahalia and Smokey (three of them obviously named for iconic American soul musicians); and his brothers Darren and long-estranged Les. The most touching dimension of the novel, though, involves his reunion with “Outspan” Foster, the long-ago guitarist in The Commitments, whom he meets in the chemo clinic. Outspan is dying. Jimmy, it turns out, is not, and the novel ends with almost the entire cast of characters converging at the Oxegen Festival in Co Kildare to assist Jimmy in giving Outspan one last hurrah, transporting him and his oxygen cylinder (he has lung cancer) around the site in a big purple inflatable armchair—at one point even passing him above the crowd and onto the stage where The Cure is performing.
Even before The Guts, however, Roddy Doyle had begun to recognise that in his seemingly boundless resilience and enthusiasm for life ‑ for living ‑ Jimmy Rabbitte Jr is anomalous among Dublin males “of a certain age”. Two years earlier, in 2011, in a collection of thirteen stories gathered under the title Bullfighting, Doyle had engaged unrelentingly with the “quiet desperation” indeed of mid-life entropy. In story after story, his characters (many of them aging in lockstep with Doyle himself, who was born in 1958) suffer from a general malaise of loneliness and feeling of the meaninglessness of life as they know it: enmeshed in passionless marriages, in jobs with no intrinsic rewards, in routines that have become ruts, in the mire of memories of childhood bullying and clerical abuse, Doyle’s men are pretty much interchangeable. In “Recuperation”, Hanahoe reflects on his life’s dull sameness that actually preceded the dull sameness of his daily walks prescribed by his doctors:
It’s depressing, a life, laid out like that. Mass, driving the kids to football, or dancing. The pint on Friday. The sex on Sunday. Pay on Thursday. The shop on Saturday. Leave the house at the same time, park in the same spot. The loyalty card. The bags. The routine. One day he knew: he hated it.
In “The Joke”, a man’s agonising over whether to tell his wife a joke is symptomatic of the overall state of their relationship: “If he went now, he’d never come back. He’d go and she wouldn’t know, or care. He’d come back and the same thing; she wouldn’t care. So, what was the point? He wasn’t going anywhere.” In “The Dog”, a couple who bonded over a Jack Russell terrier find the bond fraying when their pet goes missing: “The walking out stopped. The rows stopped. The talking too; it was a wordless life. They’d drifted. But, actually, they hadn’t drifted, and that was another problem. One of them should have gone.”
Doyle’s next two novels work variations on those themes. In Smile (2017), fifty-four-year-old Victor Forde, a once promising journalist recently separated from his television celebrity wife, is haunted by his past in the person of a putative schoolmate ‑ actually a stalker ‑ who forces him into a reckoning with how Ireland’s entrenched forces of authority had hurt not just him personally but his entire generation: “The Church, politics, inequality, being stuck in the past, the political clout of the farmers … I’d been felt up by a Christian Brother but I didn’t blame the Church for that. I didn’t know how to blame the Church; that came decades later.” Even in Charlie Savage (2019), a laugh-out-loud comic novel that sketches week-by-week in its fifty-two chapters a year in the life of its sixty-three-year-old protagonist, Doyle explores with sensitivity and poignancy the plight of a man who at every turn is made aware of the tax and the toll, on both body and spirit, of aging. Less damaged than Victor and the men in Bullfighting, Charlie adapts readily to social change, openly embracing the feminism modelled by his daughter and also recognising the continuum of sexual identity. Like both Jimmy Rabbittes ‑ fils et père ‑ he is also, quite simply, resilient. Rattled at a family gathering by someone observing that he resembles his long-dead father-in-law, he slips away and roots through a cache of family photos until he finds “a wedding snap, a line of middle-aged men”:
I see now: they all look the same. I’ve just become one of them. Paddy downstairs—he looks like them too.
That’s my discovery: as we get older we all become the same man. It’s depressing but somehow reassuring. It’s democratic, at least.
I think of all the women I know and have ever known, and they definitely don’t become the same woman.
That’s a relief.
I bounce down the stairs to tell them the news.
But there is also a subplot in Charlie Savage that anticipates where Doyle will take his readers in Love. That involves Charlie becoming curious enough to friend on Facebook, “accidentally”, a short-lived girlfriend who had betrayed him almost fifty years ago. Happily married for almost forty years, Charlie is nonetheless sufficiently intrigued with Eileen Pidgeon ‑ more with what might have been than with what might yet be ‑ to arrange a rendezvous with her.
In Love, Doyle moves the kernel of that subplot to the forefront, the resurrected love interest being a woman named Jessica whom both central characters, Joe and the narrator, Davy, now fifty-eight, were obsessively attracted to thirty-seven years earlier. Encountering her by chance at a parent-teacher meeting at his daughter’s school, Joe abandons his wife and children to move in with Jessica and her daughter ‑ and the bulk of the narrative involves his trying to explain, and to justify, this seemingly rash decision to Davy. Like so many of Doyle’s novels, and his short stories too, the narrative of Love is thus propelled by dialogue ‑ specifically the rich vernacular of northside Dublin.
In the ever-expanding body of Doyle’s work, this narrative strategy may reach its apogee in Two Pints, Two More Pints, and Two for the Road, three series of dialogue-only vignettes, all set in Dublin pubs, published between 2012 and 2019. Commencing with Joe and Davy meeting for dinner in a restaurant, Love likewise unfolds over a succession of pints at The Sheds in Clontarf, then at the Palace Bar on Fleet Street, then at Neary’s on Chatham Street as the two men make their way toward the pub (unnamed) on South William Street where, almost four decades ago, they had their first glimpse of Jessica from their perch on stools at the bar. Late in the novel Davy muses to himself on the significance of pubs in the life of male Dubliners:
Pubs, the world of men. There were women too. But the world ‑ the pub ‑ was made by men, put there for men. . . . Dark wood, old mirrors, smoke-drenched walls and ceilings. And photographs of men. Jockeys, footballers, men drinking, writers—all men ‑ rebels, boxers. The women were guests. The men were at home.
Joe and Davy ensconced on barstools once again, Doyle inscribes in Love mostly unfiltered dialogue that could be premised on the essentials of a drama described by longtime Abbey Theatre playwright, producer, and director Lennox Robinson: “A play is two chairs and a passion.”
For Joe, the passion obviously involves his reignited obsession with Jessica:
It felt like I’d been livin’ two lives. There was my life ‑ the family, Trish, the job an’ tha’. The ‑ I suppose ‑ the official life. An’ there was the shadow life I’ve been livin’ as well ‑ that I’ve only become aware of. Since, like. Since I met her. Because I didn’t really meet her, Davy. I’d been with her all the time. Tha’ was how it felt.
As the evening wears on, Davy’s patience with Joe’s holding forth on his “shadow life” wears thin: “I’d listen and leave. I knew the man I was listening to and in a minute I wouldn’t. It didn’t matter. I’d have to be going.” Inevitably, however, Davy’s serving as judge and jury for Joe’s heavily rationalised self-explaining leads him to contemplate his own life: his own contented marriage to a high-spirited Wexford woman named Faye, their leaving Ireland for aptly named Wantage (a real place in Oxfordshire), and ultimately his complicated relationship with his long-widowed father whom he left behind, alone and lonely, in Dublin. In a twist at the end that is prepared for very subtly by Davy’s increasingly anxious glances at his mobile phone during his drinking session with Joe ‑ clearly, he is awaiting some sort of news or summons ‑ the true “passion” that emerges, the true love that gives the novel its title, may be filial. Brilliant!
Thomas O’Grady is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he was director of Irish Studies from 1984 to 2019.