“ ‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” Tony Soprano said. Only those who remember can understand the effect of a conversation laced with fond reflections of the past, usually half-references of people or events.
The words fall flat, and the emotional effect is rarely comprehensible to an outsider. These conversations or passages can come off as dull at best and usually leave a rosy glaze over past lives. To describe a work of fiction, an author, or even a character as sentimental or nostalgic is not usually a compliment.
But real characters aren’t all irrevocably damaged, with bitter pasts and dysfunctional families. What about that aging guy who’s generally happy with his imperfect life? Does sentiment have to be such a dirty word?
The master conversationalist Roddy Doyle comes to terms with the past in the present in his new novel, “The Guts.” He resurrects Jimmy Rabbitte, the charismatic leader of “The Commitments,” the failed Irish soul band, who once challenged his Dublin neighborhood band with “So say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.”
Jimmy’s still in Dublin, but out of Barrytown, and picked up a wife and kids, and a fairly stable job, since we last saw him. He and his wife started kelticpunk.com, a website that rediscovers old Irish bands, gets them back together for a gig or two and resells their aging hits, mostly to their old audience, getting nostalgic with age.
He trades in sentiment and lives off the desire of others to deal in their pasts: “They were kelticpunk.com. The joy of it. The freedom. Tracking down old bands. Looking after them. And Jimmy had looked after them well. They’d seen a bit of life, the ones he’d found and adopted. They knew what a bit of extra cash mean, and what gratitude was. Some of them were still bastards, unchanged by the years, just wrecked. But even they were good crack.”
And then Jimmy gets cancer. The cancer sparks a form of midlife crisis-style reflection, so he calls up his semi-estranged brother, Les, has a fling with his old crush and ex-Commitments backup singer, Imelda, and bumps into his old band mate, neighborhood buddy and current cancer patient, Outspan.
But he also has to deal with the present, his wife whom he loves, his kids, and his business versus the recession. Characters, emotions, events old and new converge in true Jimmy Rabbitte style at a music festival, with a memorable performance on stage by his son.
Jimmy’s sincere pride he takes in his role as a father and a husband jumps off the page. It seems so rare to see such a character: a snappy Everyman, cool but striving, witty but can say the wrong thing. And this real guy just loves being a dad. Watching his son onstage, he can let go a little, let his kid grow up while still being there: “He was outside now, in the crowd, one of the audience. His son was in there, being screamed at, and Jimmy had nothing to do with it. He could grin. He was the very proud father. That was all.”
Writing content fathers is not new territory for Mr. Doyle. In his short story “Bullfighting” he gets a bunch of middle-aged friends together to have a few pints and “remember when,” not with longing, but with a laugh of recognition, because they’re generally happy about their lives in the present, and then one of the guys throws up in the pool. Like, Jimmy Rabbitte in “The Guts,” it’s not dull or sweet or fuzzy. The characters and the author, both comfortable wrestling with sentiment while juggling present obligations and uncertain futures, feel fresh.
While Jimmy chats up the pages, emerging a modern man, many of his peers lie as flat shadows. “The Guts” is one of Mr. Doyle’s longest works, more than twice as long as “The Commitments,” and he fills the extra pages with a big cast of characters, some new and some dredged from the past, like Jimmy’s dad, Jimmy Sr.
The extended cast leaves many characters an afterthought after Jimmy bumps into them and moves on. Mr. Doyle gets a little nostalgic, too, referencing some of his own lines from “The Commitments” in italics, for that inside-reader. And the longer and looser story that results leaves subplots, like Jimmy’s affair, hanging.
The plot may not be tight, but the dialogue is, as always. Written in Mr. Doyle’s style of consecutive tick marks instead of quotes and indentations, without reference to whose speaking throws the reader into the real-time pace of conversation.
The messiness of conversation, the boring minutes, the pauses, the confusing shifts in topics and speakers, the moments of wit and ordinary brilliance is Mr. Doyle’s genius. This is immediacy in writing, a scratch of life moment-to-moment. And sometimes in that moment, sentiment peeks through.
Julia Fraser is a writer living in Penn Hills (firstname.lastname@example.org).