25 years on, can Jimmy Rabbitte still rock?

by John Boland

Twenty-five years after we first encountered him, Jimmy Rabbitte is back, though not the Jimmy Rabbitte who was everyone’s favourite da from Roddy Doyle’s trilogy of Barrytown novels and who was cherishably played by Colm Meaney in movies that endeared the character to audiences around the world.

That was Jimmy Sr, who was central to both The Snapper and The Van, whereas The Guts – in which the Barrytown menage is revisited more than two decades later – focuses on son Jimmy Jr, who was the aspirant young band manager in Doyle’s arresting 1987 debut, The Commitments, and was played by Robert Arkins in Alan Parker’s 1991 film of the book.

It’s easy now to forget just what an impact that novel and its two successors had on an Irish reading public – whose acquaintanceship with the urban underclass depicted in them had hitherto been confined to hurriedly driving by Dublin’s northside estates on the way to the airport, uneasily sitting beside their inhabitants on the DART or hearing earnest sociologists bemoaning these communities as blighted social experiments.

Joyce, though, would have understood these marginalised Dubliners and so, too, would James Plunkett and Lee Dunne. However, their existence had largely been ignored in 20th Century Irish literature and it was Doyle’s great achievement that he not only gave them voice but made them his abiding subject.

And he did this without a trace of condescension. There’s a generosity and humanity about these Barrytown books that come from real affection – the characters may say and do daft things, yet while you may often chortle at their foolishness, you’re never encouraged to scoff at them.

And a young audience who up to then had never given a moment’s thought to the time-honoured literature of Ireland instinctively recognised that someone was depicting life as it was actually being lived in the late 20th Century, not just in the suburbs of Dublin but throughout the country, too.

Perhaps there was a sense that the three books, driven almost entirely by dialogue, were essentially screenplays waiting to be turned into movies (and brilliant movies they made, too), but in themselves they caught a moment in Dublin’s history in a way that no writer, other than Joyce, had done before.

Indeed, more than most books, they were novels of their time, and only time will tell whether they manage to transcend the era in which they’re so firmly rooted or whether they end up as period pieces about a vanished and more innocent age.

Thus it was brave of their author to revisit characters who made him famous a quarter of a century ago and to show how they’ve coped, or failed to cope, with the profoundly altered circumstances that passing decades inevitably bring.

Jimmy Rabbitte Jr is now the 47-year-old father of four exuberant children and has just discovered he’s got bowel cancer. He’s happily married to Aoife and is still involved in the music business as junior partner in a website that resurrects and promotes local bands from the past. He meets Jimmy Sr for the occasional jar, too, though the father remains a very minor figure throughout the book.

Centre stage is Jimmy Jr’s cancer and his fearful reaction to it as he undergoes surgical procedures and chemotherapy, and Doyle well captures Jimmy’s panic and bewilderment as he faces terrifying realities. There are other story strands too, one of them involving a YouTube video in which Jimmy’s son pretends to be a mysterious Bulgarian for reasons that seem to amuse the author rather than make any real sense to the reader.

Another involves Imelda Quirke, last met as vocalist in The Commitments (played by Angeline Ball in the movie), but now a middle-aged mother whom Jimmy encounters by chance and with whom he begins an affair. The reader keeps waiting for loving wife Aoife to find out about it (there’s much mention of cellphone messaging between the lovers), but nothing happens and Imelda simply vanishes from the book in its final quarter.

There are other oddities, too, most notably in the last 60 pages, which take place at last year’s Electric Picnic. Jimmy is there to witness the debut gig of his son’s band (more Bulgarian codology) and he’s accompanied by long-lost brother Les, pal Des and old mate Outspan (Glen Hansard in the movie), who’s dying of lung cancer. Much is made of Outspan’s distressing condition, but Jimmy’s own cancer, which had seemed to be worsening throughout the book, no longer seems of any concern, either to himself or to the author.

There’s a lot that’s entertaining about The Guts, not least its sardonic soundbites, as when Jimmy muses that the Celtic punk bands he’s forced to promote merely provide “Riverdance for Nazis” and for “diddley-eye Provos”, and there’s much wry commentary, too, on the recession in which the post Celtic Tiger Ireland has found itself.

Near the start, though, Jimmy considers a Barrytown shopping centre to be “a monument to a different era”, and by the end the reader can’t help reflecting that, for all its contemporary references, this return to old characters and haunts seems a bit like that, too.

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