Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2020.
Roddy Doyle has cornered the market in stories focused on middle-aged Irishmen reflecting on their lives and loves.
This “trend” largely began with his short story collection Bullfighting (published 2011), quickly followed by Two Pints (2012) and Two More Pints (2014) (the latter two have been on my TBR since publication). Even his emotionally devastating novel Smile (2017) is about a middle-aged man picking up his life after the breakdown of his marriage.
His most recent novel Love is more of the same. It reveals how two middle-aged men discover that love comes in many forms, not just sexual.
A night on the town
Set over the course of one (drunken) night, it tells the story of two 50-something friends — Joe and Davy —catching up over a meal at a restaurant, which is then followed by a spontaneous pub crawl through central Dublin.
Told from Davy’s point of view, it is very much focused on a confession by Joe: that he has left his wife for another woman but has never had sex with her. (Davy, who moved to England decades earlier, has his own confession to make, but this is held back until the last 50 or so pages, giving the story a rather unexpected emotional ending.)
Comprised largely of dialogue interspersed with flashbacks to earlier times, the book follows an evening’s conversation, which remains stuck in a repetitive, single groove: that Joe is smitten with his new woman even though he still loves his wife.
Davy, whose own marriage has defied the odds, interrogates Joe because he thinks the relationship is far-fetched. He finds it difficult to believe that Joe hasn’t “traded in” his wife for a younger model but has moved in with a woman he went to school with some 37 years ago and whom he became reacquainted by accident at a parent-teacher evening a year ago.
He saw her at the end of a corridor and he knew. Immediately. She was exactly the same. Even from that far off. Even though she was only a shape, a dark, slim shape — a silhouette — in the centre of the late-afternoon light that filled the glass door behind her.
—She was never slim, I said.
—I don’t even know what slim means, really, he said.
—Same here, I said.
—I just said it, he said. —The word. She was a tall shape – instead.
—Not a roundly shape.
—She’s aged well, I said. —That’s what you’re telling me.
—I am, he said. —And she has.
A long conversation
As the evening progresses, Joe’s conversation is like a stuck record. As more pubs are visited and an alarming number of pints are sunk, the pair’s circuitous conversation is mired by misunderstandings, occasional aggressive outbursts and comic moments.
And yet, despite the tedious nature of the banter, there’s something strangely touching about two men bearing their souls to one another. Here, in the pub, they can relax and be themselves.
Pubs, the world of men. There were women too. But the world — the pub — was made by men, put there for men. There were no women serving, no lounge girls, very few women sitting on the stools along the counters. 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. […] I’d discovered my life. The shy man’s heaven.
In fact, the succession of well-known Dublin pubs name-checked in this novel (many of which I’ve visited myself, including my all-time favourite establishment, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street) creates the perfect setting for the conversations that unfold within: dark and claustrophobic, rich with history and untold secrets.
Doyle captures the mood and atmosphere of the pub, as well as the little rituals between drinkers, in such a faithful, authentic way that reading this book made me thirsty for Guinness!
I watched the pints settle as if it was the first time I’d seen it happen, the tan darkening to black and the arrival of the collar. I couldn’t help myself.
—It’s a fuckin’ miracle, really, isn’t it?
He knew what I was talking about.
—It is, he agreed.
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it. It had been one of our lines, since we’d heard some oul’ lad say it, probably where I was standing now.
Joe picked up his pint and placed it a few inches closer to him. I did the same – I leaned across him and put my glass on top of a wet bar mat.
—I don’t think I want this one, I said.
I meant it.
—I’m fuckin’ full o’ drink, I said – another phrase we’d got from an old man when we were young men, an old man who had probably been younger than we were now.
Similarly, the characters in Love are as well-drawn as the pubs. Joe and Davy are funny and loyal, sometimes bewildered (by women) and often perplexed (by the onset of age). Their conversation and their antics feel very real.
Yet, despite these strengths, the premise of this novel is relatively weak. The story unfolds too slowly and feels too long. It could easily lose 100 pages and be none the weaker for it.
That said, I enjoyed spending time in the company of these men. And the ending, when it comes, is as touching as anything I’ve read in a good long while.
This is my 3rd novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book store last month.