In a public conversation with the New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman several years ago, Dave Eggers declared: “I don’t think there’s anybody alive that’s better at dialogue than Roddy Doyle.”
The tour-de-force scene that opens Doyle’s new novel, “The Guts,’’ confirms Eggers’s assessment. A father and son’s conversation at a local pub, covering everything from new technology (Dad has recently gotten his “first mobile” and is curious about Facebook) to cougars (Dad initially thought the TV show “Cougar Town’’ “was like ‘Born Free’ ”), receding hairlines to a cancer diagnosis, is both laugh-out-loud funny and disarmingly moving. Quintessential Doyle in the way character is established with almost no physical description or interior monologue, it contains some of the snappiest, wittiest, most believable and exhilarating dialogue in fiction.
In “The Guts,’’ Doyle returns to characters first introduced in his most well-known novel, 1987’s “The Commitments,’’ which told the story of a rock group’s formation and inspired a popular movie of the same name. Twenty-five years later, The Commitments have gone their separate ways and their cocky manager, Jimmy Rabbitte, is facing a changed landscape. No longer in the business of discovering and developing new talent, he’s now promoting nostalgia bands (many of them one-hit wonders).
Jimmy is as driven and fun-loving as ever, but he’s facing formidable obstacles in his pursuit of unfettered joy. Middle-aged, with all the physical indignities that entails, he’s a married father of four, alternately overwhelmed by the burden of covering the children’s costs and wishing they “would stop growing up.” Ireland is deep in a recession, and Jimmy’s business is suffering. He’s long estranged from his brother, Les, and regrets his lack of close male friends. And then there’s the cancerous tumor that’s just been discovered in his guts.
Jimmy resolves to combat the “[t]error . . . [and] dread” occasioned by his cancer diagnosis, to find “laughter in the face of bad luck,” to become “Jimmy again, not the jittery lump” he’s been; “The Guts’’ plots Jimmy’s quest to revitalize himself, to remain gutsy even as 80 percent of his guts are being removed. He takes trumpet lessons, spends time with his ornery yet lovable Da, and finds distinctive ways to connect with his increasingly independent children. He deepens his bond with his steadfast wife, who buys him “Chemotherapy & Radiation For Dummies’’ and nurtures him through the rigors of treatment. He tracks down his long-lost brother via Facebook, and they begin regular phone conversations.
Jimmy’s reconnections with two former Commitments encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of Doyle’s novel. Jimmy runs into Commitments bassist Outspan Foster at the cancer nic (Outspan is being treated for inoperable lung cancer) and their prickly yet tender bond is one of the strongest aspects of “The Guts,’' allowing Doyle to expertly intertwine high comedy and profound feeling. The affair Jimmy initially resists and then jumps headlong into with former Commitment Imelda Quirk is both less believable and less interesting; it reeks of cliché, panders to the worst kinds of stereotypes, and isn’t effectively resolved.
Jimmy has always thrived on “risk . . . [and] excitement,” and when he hatches a scheme that will simultaneously revive his business, connect him with his son, and reunite him with his brother, he goes into manic overdrive trying to pull it off. He becomes once again “Jimmy the salesman, Jimmy the manager . . . [t]alking his way to success,” ignoring “boring . . . questions about cost and legality,” bent on realizing his “mad and brilliant” plan. Most of the important people in Jimmy’s life come together in the novel’s final, extended scene at an outdoor music festival, as Jimmy scrambles to give everyone in attendance “the gig of their lives.”
The denouement, however, comes at the expense of believability and takes “The Guts’’ into a realm of wish-fulfillment that leaves behind the deeper and more interesting novel it often elsewhere is. Moreover, the adolescent male sensibility that colors Jimmy’s affair with Imelda surfaces all too often in this music festival scene.
Still, to make a story about middle-aged men battling cancer a largely effervescent lark without a trace of sentimentality is a notable achievement. When Jimmy’s sassy teenage daughter, Mahalia, asks her brothers: “Has anyone noticed . . . that we’ve one of the funniest dads in, like, the whole country?”, we are likely to nod in agreement.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’