20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Love’ by Roddy Doyle

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.
He shrugged.
—I don’t even know what slim means, really, he said.
He smiled.
—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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Smile’ by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Fiction – Kindle edition; Jonathan Cape; 224 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If I had to choose a favourite book for 2017, I’m pretty sure it would be this one. Roddy Doyle’s Smile is a welcome return to form by the master of bittersweet black comedy, dialogue and drama.

It’s one of those novels you begin, thinking it’s about one thing — a middle-aged man picking up the pieces of his life after his marriage breaks down — only to discover by the denouement that it is something else entirely, something more emotionally powerful and disturbing, something that makes you want to turn back to the first page to read it all over again.

I read this one in the space of a weekend, but its dramatic effect lasted long after I’d reached the final page. I’ve read most of Doyle’s back catalogue, but even this one surpasses the sweet sadness of my favourite, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

A kind of home-coming

When the book opens we meet 54-year-old Victor Forde. He has just moved into a new “Eastern European style apartment block” in the suburb by the sea where he grew up. It’s 40 years since he’s lived here and he doesn’t really know anyone. He is so starved of human company he’s taken to going to his local pub, Donnelly’s, for a pint every night.

I had to force myself to do it at first, like going to the  gym or to mass. I’d go home — home! — cook something, eat it, then walk down the straight line to the pub. For one slow pint. I’d bring a book or my iPad with me.

He’s quite introverted, but does his best to befriend the bar staff while keeping out of everyone else’s way. One evening, face buried in his iPad (“I’d been looking at my wife’s Facebook page”), he hears his name being called and then a strangely dressed man approaches him, claiming they went to school together. Victor can’t remember the man; he can’t even remember his name, he just knows he doesn’t like him — “I knew that immediately”.

The book charts Victor’s friendship with Eddie, whose old stories about school and girls and sex prompt Victor to remember the troubled five years he spent being taught by the Christian Brothers (one of whom took a particular shine to him).

This, in turn, stirs up other memories for Victor: how he escaped his working class roots by marrying an attractive woman, Rachel, who became a much celebrated TV chef and successful business woman; how he found his own (minor) fame and fortune as a music critic turned radio pundit; and how their life together was full of passion and lots of good times until it all came crumbling apart at the seams.

But as Victor’s narrative swings seamlessly between the past and the present, between his school days and his happy marriage, between his current life living alone to the increasingly sinister behaviour of Eddie whom he can’t seem to escape, there’s the very real feeling that something isn’t quite right, that Victor’s life is about to properly unravel.

Vivid characters, vibrant dialogue

As ever with a Roddy Doyle novel, the plot moves along chiefly through dialogue. It’s punchy and vibrant and full of Dublin vernacular. His characters are richly drawn, believable and vivid. And all the scenes — whether it be in the pub, in the class room, or in the kitchen at home — are so beautifully observed that there’s a filmic quality to the entire story.

But it’s the careful plotting, the nuanced details, the mixture of dark subjects and light humour, and all the things that Doyle doesn’t say that make Smile such a profoundly moving, occasionally disturbing and important read.

The twist at the end will only make you reassess everything that comes before, for this is a deceptive story, where nothing is as quite as it seems…

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Dead Man Talking’ by Roddy Doyle


Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 100 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

I’m a long-time Roddy Doyle fan (I read most of his work before I started this blog, which means there are only a couple of reviews featured here), so I was keen to read his new title, Dead Man Talking, published as part of Galaxy Quick Reads.

Literacy initiative

For those not familiar with the Quick Reads programme, it publishes short books to encourage people to start reading. According to the press release that came with this book, Quick Reads titles are designed with adults in mind who “are either less confident in their reading skills or over time have become lapsed readers”.

It adds:

Founded in 2006, the Quick Reads initiative was launched to help the country’s one in six adults of working age who have difficulty reading, as well as the one in three adults who do not read for pleasure. Through demonstrating that books and reading can be for everyone, Quick Reads has now distributed over 4.3million books to libraries, workplaces, hospitals, schools, parents, family groups and even prisons, where literacy continues to be significantly low.

Doyle is the first Booker Prize-winning author who has written for the programme since it was launched  — and he’s perfect for it: he writes in an easy-to-understand style, his prose is simple and largely dialogue, and his stories are entertaining and “earthy”.

With that in mind, Dead Man Talking is pitched at adults but it could easily be read by a child with competent reading skills because it’s free of literary flourishes and big words. The chapters are short (some are only a page long) and the narrative clips along at a steady pace, so there’s no fear of an inexperienced reader becoming bored.

A short story about death

Dead Man Talking is essentially a short story about a man coming to terms with his own mortality.

It’s written in the first person from the point-of-view of a middle-aged man called Pat Dunne, who discovers that his friend, Joe Murphy, has died. The pair had a big falling out over a horse many years ago and haven’t talked since. Joe’s death raises lots of complicated feelings — guilt, sadness and nostalgia — in Pat, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with them.

The story has all the typical Doyle trademarks — a big heart, cracking one-liners and down-to-earth working class characters — but it felt a little cheesy to me. The cloying sentiment, however, is rescued by a nice little twist at the end, which gives the story a spooky, other-worldly feel.

True to the initiative’s branding, it’s a very “quick read” and could certainly be completed in a lunch hour or on a short train journey by those bloggers and bibliophiles who aren’t the target audience. It might not set your world on fire, but it raises some interesting issues, including what happens to us when we die, and why it’s important to treat friends, loved ones and complete strangers with kindness while we’re still alive.

It’s not a must-read by any stretch of the imagination, but as part of this initiative it fits the billing nicely — and I’m delighted such a “big name” author doesn’t think it’s beneath him to contribute in this way.

Several other titles will be published as part of the 2015 Quick Reads programme tomorrow (5 February). These include Paris for Two One by Jojo Moyes, Red for Revenge by Fanny Blake, Pictures or it Didn’t Happen by Sophie Hannah, Out Of The Dark by Adéle Geras and Street Can Bob by James Bowen. The initiative is sponsored by Galaxy chocolate and each book costs just £1.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 328 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown TrilogyThe Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — is one of my favourite ever volumes, so I was falling over myself with excitement when I heard he had a new novel out that turned the “trilogy” into a “quartet”.

Back with the Rabbitte family

The Guts is set in modern-day Dublin — there are references to Whitney Houston’s death, boxer Katie Taylor‘s gold medal in the London Olympics, and Christy Moore, Sigur Ros and The Cure playing the Electric Picnic, which suggests the date is 2012.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who invented and managed the soul band The Commitments in The Commitments, is now 47. He’s married to the lovely Aoife and has four kids — all named after soul singers.

While he’s not rich, he has managed to survive the collapse of the Irish economy via an online business (www.kelticpunk.com), which he founded with his wife, selling long-lost Irish punk songs as downloads. After paying off the mortgage, he sold 75 per cent of the business to a partner, Noeleene, but keeps his hand in by managing reunion gigs and other associated projects.

But now things aren’t so great: Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He needs an operation and a series of chemotherapy treatments. And just when it’s all looking pretty grim he stumbles upon three things to distract him — the gorgeous Imelda Quirke, who was a singer in The Commitments he hasn’t seen in 20 or so years; trumpet lessons; and a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932.

Black comedy

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the company of the Rabbitte family — and I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew I was going to love this book when I got my first laugh on page 3. From then on, I pretty much tittered my way throughout it.

Occasionally Doyle does waver into sentimentality, especially where cancer is concerned, but he usually reigns it back in with a good dose of black humour —  I especially loved that Jimmy’s purple velour tracksuit bottoms, given to him as a Christmas present by his wife, are dubbed “cancer trousers” and that the book Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies sent to him as a joke actually becomes bedtime reading material.

There are some delightful set pieces involving the family that particularly tickled my fancy. For instance, when 10-year-old Brian, nicknamed Smoke (presumably after Smoky Robinson), requests a  sat nav for Christmas, his parents buy him one even though he “doesn’t have a fuckin’ car”. And this is what happens on Christmas morning:

He walked down the road with Brian and got excited with him when they came to the first corner, and there it was, on the sat nav.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
Here, Smoke, tell it where we’re goin’ and it’ll tell us where to go.
Brian impressed Jimmy, the way all his kids did, with his ability to negotiate the buttons, the confidence, the effortless speed. No grunting from this boy.
—Where we goin’? he asked.
—The Spar, said Smokey.
—It’s only over there.
—Drive forward, said the sat nav.
The voice was posh and reassuring, like an Aer Lingus pilot’s. […]
They found the Spar and were going on to Brian’s school. […] Brian turned right.
—The wrong way, Smoke.
—I know.
—Turn left, said the voice.
Brian kept going.
—Turn LEFT, said the voice.
Brian looked down at the sat nav.
—Fuck off, he said, and laughed.
He looked at Jimmy. And Jimmy laughed too.
—It’s brilliant, Dad, said Brian.

A musical project

The main story arc charts Jimmy coming to terms with his cancer treatment and reconnecting with the people he loves, including his long-lost brother, whom he manages to trackdown via Facebook. He also re-establishes contact with Outspan, another character from The Commitments, who has lung cancer and is in far worse shape than him.

But the real highlight is Jimmy’s musical project in which he hunts for tracks to include on a record of controversial Irish songs from 1932, the idea being to sell it during the 50th International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in the summer. As he hunts about in people’s attics, looking for old recordings, he can’t quite find the song he’s looking for — one that will sum up “the great escape”, one that will “say things that weren’t allowed” — and because of that he hits upon a rather radical idea: he will simply write one himself and find someone to record it.

What ensues is a kind of modern-day farce, involving YouTube and social media “buzz”, culminating in a very public, very surreal performance at the Electric Picnic music festival.

A heartfelt story

I think it’s clear from The Guts that Roddy Doyle has written this one from the guts: it’s frank and funny, it’s about things that matter (love and family and friendship), and it crackles with feisty Dublin dialect and richly comic exchanges. And the endless music references are just brilliant.

Despite the tragic illness at its core, the story is largely optimistic and upbeat, though it does stray into the saccharine every now and then.

But on the whole I loved spending time with Jimmy, a middle-aged man getting back in touch with his emotions and enjoying what he loves: women, family, pints and music, not necessarily in that order.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting, short stories

‘Bullfighting’ by Roddy Doyle


Fiction – hard cover; Jonathan Cape; 214 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by Roddy Doyle. I devoured his Barrytown Trilogy in the mid-1990s, absolutely loved his Booker-winning Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha and got ready to slash my wrists over The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. But I was less impressed with a Star Called Henry and so I didn’t bother reading the two follow-ups in that series.

But when his latest book popped through the letter box unsolicited a month or so ago, I figured I should give the poor man a second chance.

Bullfighting is a volume of short stories that could be best categorised as tales of male middle-age angst. There are 13 stories in this collection, many of which have been published elsewhere, including the New Yorker and The Faber Book of New Irish Short Stories.

The men in this book are passive, weak and out of touch with their emotions. Those that are married seem unable to communicate on any meaningful level with their wives. In The Joke, one man feels as if he’s invisible, that he’s being taken for granted by his wife, but he cannot articulate the problem — “Sick of what, but? He wasn’t sure. The whole thing. Everything. He was just sick of it” — so nothing is resolved.

It’s even worse for Kevin in the story Ash. His wife tells him she’s leaving him, but then she returns for one last romp in bed — “She rode the arse off me” — before disappearing again. He doesn’t know if his wife is ever coming back. Indeed, he’s not even sure if his wife has properly left him, because she’s not taken any personal belongings with her. He is stuck at home with the kids, but does nothing — he doesn’t even have the courage to make a phone call — to clarify the situation, to express his anger, or his dismay. He is kind of pathetic.

The over-riding theme here is men — “miserable poor shites” as one character describes it — stuck in ruts, of boredom, of monotony. Hanahoe, in the opening story Recuperation, puts it like this:

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.

But just as I was getting sick of the repetitive themes — the family men growing old, coming to terms with the kids leaving home, of parents requiring care, of friends and neighbours dying of one disease (usually cancer) or another — Doyle throws a curve ball in the form of Blood, a startling story about a married man who develops a taste for raw steak and wonders if he might be turning into a vampire.

The stories that follow are slightly more edgy, although they are still peopled by men facing the fact that they have already lived more than half of their lives. The signature story, Bullfighting, hints at men finally opening up and communicating with one another beyond the usual pub-talk of football and politics. It revolves around four childhood friends holidaying in Spain, sleeping by day, partying by night, and even if it is the drunkenness that allows them to talk openly, at least they are admitting their problems and failings.

The collection as a whole is an effortless read, told in warm and witty Roddy Doyle style.  But with so much male repression bound up in one book, most of it completely unresolved, I wondered how much of it is a true reflection of this generation — okay, my generation — of men? When Terence, in The Slave, says middle-age is all about “getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless. It’s death becoming something real”, is that what most men think — and feel? Answers in the comments box, please!