In Roddy Doyle’s 12th novel, “Love,” a man named Davy returns from England to Dublin to visit his father, and shares pints of beer with his old friend Joe over several hours in various pubs. But this story, with its beer-inspired and home-brewed philosophy, its funny and painful moments, is about love, and not just the love of beer (as the cover art suggests). It’s about love and the remembrance of love between friends, lovers, and family.
Doyle, who lives in Dublin, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel “The Van” in 1991 and later won the Booker for “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” in 1993. He’s concocted two novellas, “Two Pints” and “Two More Pints,” from the bits of humorous dialogue by guys in a pub, which he posted on Facebook, and much of his novel, “Smile” (2017) unfolds in a pub. So it’s no surprise that Doyle’s characters are drinking in pubs again. In “Love” both men are nearly 60 and, like a lot of old guys, they reminisce over several pints and share a few stories, which may or may not be true, about when they were “young lads, boys, men,” since, as Davy explains, back then they weren’t called “guys.”
A lot else has changed, too, as they remember and misremember the way things used to be, concerning women and sex and what it meant to become a man in Ireland “back in the day,” a saying that Joe hates. It takes the two men a while and a few pints for them to open up to each other. “There is a reason why men don’t talk about their feelings. It’s not just that it’s difficult, or embarrassing. It’s almost impossible. The words aren’t really there.” Ah, but in wine there is truth and in beer there is “drunken sense” and the two manage to do a lot of storytelling. Joe reveals that he’s left his wife, Trish, for another woman, Jessica, whom Joe and Davy were each infatuated with more than 30 years ago.
Davy has a secret of his own that he doesn’t disclose to Joe or to the reader till late in this chapterless novel. Although Davy is the narrator, he senses that Joe is telling him “a story, not an account, or a long boast.” It’s a tad ironic that Davy thinks they’ll “end the night with his story, not mine.” Often the men don’t agree on what happened in the past. Davy accuses Joe of making things up. “— Wha’ you say you remember an’ what I know I remember don’t tally,” Davy tells Joe. They discuss the reliability of memories. Joe asks Davy, “Did you ever tell a lie so often you ended up believin’ it? — So often it becomes a memory.” In an interview, Doyle, himself, comments, “It’s interesting how shared memories rarely are perfectly, or even closely, shared.” Doyle juxtaposes Davy’s against Joe’s memories, thus managing to get the friends to reveal to each other and to the reader more than either character would ordinarily reveal.
Although Davy has been coming to Dublin to visit his father a few times a year, his visits have become fewer. Davy has usually had a pint with Joe, but this time the beers flow freely and, of course, their tongues loosen. “I heard it: my accent was changing, reverting. I was becoming the Dublin boy I’d been when we’d first seen Jessica. And so was Joe; he was well ahead of me.” They talk about how they met their wives, Faye and Trish. Davy and Joe admit they loved Jessica when they were in their 20s and trying to become men. Davy admits to Joe that he ran into Jessica a year ago after a parent-teacher meeting and fell in love with her again. Joe has left his wife for the woman-of-their-dreams. Ultimately, Davy reveals that this time his he’s been in Dublin for months caring for his dying father.
Doyle’s narrative style is fast-paced and deceptively easy to read and more accessible than, say, fellow Irishman Colum McCann’s, but “Love” is surprisingly weighty. Doyle has put the story in Davy’s mouth as dialogue, interrupted by a few short bits of narration, that goes down as smoothly as gulps of beer. But Joycean dialogue set off with a single em-dash can be confusing, and it’s sometimes hard to identify dialogue as it flows into narration. Doyle’s readers are used to his Irish slang and his profanity. But if you’re new to Doyle, don’t let the Irish lingo daunt you; you will easily understand, in context, phrases like “actin’ the maggot” and going to “the jacks,” unless you’re some sort of eejit, but “grand” just means OK and “banjaxed” means ruined or really drunk. Be wary, though, of 558 variations of the F-word (I counted) and several variations of its near-synonym “ride.” Besides novels, novellas, and short stories, Doyle has written scripts for film versions of his novels, “The Commitments” (1987) and “The Van” (1991). So, it’s easy to imagine Doyle adapting “Love,” this brilliant two-character story, as a movie with Davy and Joe crawling the pubs and dueling with conflicting memories as their stories flash back to the pubs and women from their past.
By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 304 pages, $27
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/