The title is an inelegant but clever play on words. On the one hand it refers to the colon cancer the main character is battling on the other, it is a reference to the courage it takes for him to be reconciled to his own mortality. The author is imagining the life of his protagonist, Jimmy Rabbit some thirty years after he was first introduced in the enormously successful novel, The Commitments.
Set in Dublin’s Northside, the novel is written in a conversational style. Dialogue is peppered with expletives that read like a sort of rhythmic parochial poetry or a coded language of love and affection. Even the children understand its meaning. (Mr. Doyle makes this believable although in my world my children would have thought Mom had gone mad and had some sort of nervous breakdown if I used the ‘f…’ word in casual conversation). The period is set just after the boom of the Celtic Tiger has begun its decline. It has become more difficult for those, like Jimmy, who have risen out of a financially underprivileged childhood, to maintain a comfortable, middleclass lifestyle. However, Dublin is still an affluent world where everyone enjoys the benefits of modern technology; where cell phones and laptops are not luxuries but considered part of the everyday necessities of life and where travel within the EU is easy and affordable.
Jimmy Rabbit first appeared in Roddy Doyle’s successful novel, The Commitments that was made into an even more successful movie with a cult following. As a young man Jimmy drew upon his passion for American blues music to ignite a brief career as the impresario of a raucous band of similarly minded misfits. Thirty or so years later Roddy Doyle imagines that now Jimmy is a family man with a beautiful wife and four teenagers. The children are sensitive and good hearted but dealing with the growing pains of the teenage years. Jimmy has channelled his love of music into an online business that specializes in sourcing vinyl recordings of every sort. It seems that he enjoyed success for a long time but as this novel unfolds we learn he has had to sell part of the interest in the business to raise capital and has essentially become an employee of his own company. As the story opens Jimmy is on a mission to let his family members know that he has been diagnosed with colon cancer in its early stages and that he will require both surgery and chemotherapy.
Jimmy receives the support of his family and even connects with a long lost brother but it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of the adolescent left in Jimmy as he tries to rediscover the excitement and dazzle of those early days when there was potential in every project. Part of this rediscovery is an effort to come to terms with the possibility that he might be facing an early death although the prognosis for a full recovery is good. He does some crazy things such as encourage his son to pose as a Bulgarian rock singer named Boris and in an another adventure has a brief affair with a woman named Imelda who was a back-up singer with the Commitments.
There is great writing in this book but there are some gaps in The Guts. As someone who has lived and cared for a family member with cancer I came to conclude there are some things that do not ring true in this novel as far as my own experience goes. The interesting question then is whether that is important when the story telling is so good? I told myself that the severity of every cancer patient’s disease is different as is everyone’s way of dealing with it. I have spent time bedside in a chemotherapy clinic and witnessed those who are serenely in for their ‘top up’ chemo to hold at bay a cancer that will never be cured and on other occasions witnessed people so scared they cannot stop trembling. Jimmy is depicted as the type who puts on a brave face in order to save his children from suffering the anxiety of anticipating the worst. That I can accept as plausible what I find hard to accept is the distance his wife Aoefe kept as he was going through his treatment. It seems to me that ones partner’s involvement is essential because one’s household is basically turned upside down when a family member is being treated for cancer. Chemotherapy suppresses the immune system so it is very important to be careful to not pick up an infection of any sort. This is why most people take a break from their work, and become virtual hermits while they recover. To do this one needs the understanding and cooperation of the whole family, especially ones partner.
Then again there are the demands of the story and what the author wants to say. There could not have been the brief romantic fling with Imelda had Aoefe been hovering around all the time. There was also a boisterous rowdy rock festival in a muddy field that figures large in the conclusion to this novel … not a good place for a recovering cancer patient to be especially with hundreds of people using the same facilities.
This a good story and Jimmy Rabbit is still the good-hearted, all grown up adolescent he was in the Commitments. There is a light hearted optimism throughout this book that makes it a satisfying read despite or maybe because of, the author’s fanciful diversions.