Reread Project: The Van by Roddy Doyle

The VanThe Van

by Roddy Doyle
Series: The Barrytown Trilogy, #3

Trade Paperback, 311 pg.
Minerva, 1991
Read: August 25 – , 2015
Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. started off as a supporting character in The Commitments, moved up to co-star in The Snapper, and finally moves to the forefront in The Van, which is more about him than the other two were about any one person. Which isn’t to say that Jimmy, Jr., Sharon, Veronica, Darren and the twins aren’t here, they’re just in the background — as are most of Jimmy, Sr.’s friends (actually, I think Jr.’s in this far more than he was The Snapper).

Not only is the focus more narrow, the final installment in the trilogy is different in other ways — it’s almost 100 pages longer (depending on the printing) than The Snapper which was about 50 pages longer than The Commitments. Which gives Doyle more space to do things he hadn’t really before. It’s still primarily told through heavily stylized In the first 90 pages, I estimated I’d read more (significantly more) narration than I did in the first two volumes of the trilogy.

It’s not been clear before what Jimmy did for a living, but whatever it was, it was pretty clear the bills were barely paid. They stretched what they had pretty far, but they seemed to manage. Somewhere along the line, pretty sure it was post-Snapper, but I’m not sure, Jimmy lost his job. Unemployment isn’t setting well with him — he can’t support his family, he’s bored, he can’t even go down to the pub to have a few pints with his friends.

Jimmy’s trying to grow — he’s reading the classics. Thinking of taking some classes. But it’s not enough. At some point his friend, Bimbo, also gets laid off. The two spend a lot of time together — having a companion in his unemployment makes the whole thing tolerable for Jimmy — almost like summer vacation from school. Bimbo isn’t quite as accepting of this new reality — he almost applies to work at McDonald’s, but is shamed out of it by Jimmy. Bimbo’s wife is even less satisfied with his job status. Which leads to a reckless move on Bimbo’s part — reckless, yet maybe inspired — he uses some of his last dollars on a Chip Van (minus an engine). In the midst of the U.S.’ current Food Truck craze, this might not seem so risky, but in the early 90s? (then again, what do I know of early 90’s Dublin, other than what I’ve picked up from Doyle’s novels and the movies based on them?)

They’ve just a few weeks until the World Cup games start when they hope they can cash in on the post-game crowds. So Jimmy and Bimbo rush to clean the, learn to cook, design a menu, etc. And now you’ve got yourself a plot — can these two make a go of this? Can they remain friends and co-workers? Will they start a grease fire that destroys the whole of Barrytown?

There was, it seemed to me, a maturing of Jimmy that started back in The Snapper. Not that he wasn’t a good father before, but he kicked it into a higher gear with Sharon during her pregnancy. Here, that seems to manifest itself in a paternal pride — Junior’s having some sort of success out there, is getting married; his other son, Darren, is doing very well in school (better than anyone else in the family, that’s sure). Part of Jimmy’s reaction to it is finding pleasure in someone else’s success for what it means to them. I’m not convinced that the Jimmy of The Commitments or the first part of The Snapper could do that.

That’s not to say that he’s Man of the Year material or anything. There are some real (human) flaws to him. He’s petty, he’s jealous, he’s proud — there’s some sort of mid-life crisis that he’s got a half-hearted interest in involving Other Women. As in all good fiction, these just make him someone you can like, someone you can relate to, someone you can get annoyed with — even pity.

There’s some great, great stuff about sports fans here — national pride around The World Cup, the joy in sports, the very real camaraderie that can exist for a few moments around a shared experience. That’s not my typical milieu, but I’ve tasted it a time or two — and I can’t imagine many capture it better than Doyle did here. Even if I didn’t like the rest of the book, I think that part would’ve been worth it.

In the end, this is Doyle’s best work (to date), not the most enjoyable, but the best. It’s impossible after reading this, to ignore Jimmy, Sr.’s brief appearances in The Commitments, to not pull for him earlier than you should in The Snapper, and really to forget him. Just a great character in a world you really don’t want to leave.

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4 Stars

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Reread Project: The Snapper by Roddy Doyle

The SnapperThe Snapper

by Roddy Doyle
Series: The Barrytown Trilogy, #2

Paperback, 212 pg.

Penguin, 1992

Read: May 20 – 21, 2015Naturally, after one of the best rock band novels ever — one fully of music, laughs, and style — Doyle follows it up with a heartfelt story of a young woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. Who wouldn’t?

Now, Sharon (the young woman in question) is the sister of Jimmy Rabbitte — The Commitments’ manager. So there is a tie — and we saw a little of their father and the rest of the family last time. Still, this feels so different, it’s hard to conceive of them being part of a trilogy. Oh well — it works — so who cares?. Carried along by Doyle’s inimitable style, this story — which could easily have been maudlin, overly-sentimental, or sappy; comes across as genuine and heartfelt instead.
Where The Commitments was full of laughs, raunch, and style; The Snapper is full of laughs, family and heart. It’s not just about one member of the family this time — it’s all of them. The focus is on Sharon and her father, Jimmy, Sr.

Sharon finds herself “up the pole,” much to her distress. She knows who the father is, a one-night stand (something far less meaningful, actually) she wishes had never happened. Unwilling to let anyone know the father’s real identity, she makes one up (which also relieves her of the need to let the real guy have anything to do with the kid). Initially, she’s in sort of a denial — she knows the baby will change everything. But that’s months away — right now, she and her friends can still hit the pub after she gets off working at the supermarket and pretend that everything’s just like it was a couple of weeks ago. Eventually, she starts to make the changes necessary, but only when she has to. There’s personal growth here for Sharon, when she has no choice. But honestly — other than questionable taste in men, and an utter lack of awareness about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome — she seems like she’s got her head screwed on right already.

Jimmy, Sr. seems like the kind of guy you’d like to hang out in a pub with occasionally — I think he (and his friends) would get old quickly if you hung out with them all the time. Generous, funny, and gregarious. Maybe not the most responsible guy around — but he’s making ends meet (mostly), and doing (almost) his best for his kids. Eventually, he seems to get his act together for Sharon — or at least he tries. Which just makes you like him more — even as (because?) he just doesn’t make it some times.

While these two are on the forefront of Doyle’s attention, we do get some time with Sharon’s siblings (even Jimmy, Jr. — a little bit — who’s still trying to make it in the music business) and long-suffering mother. We watch the family stumble along through financial woes, various school clubs, a bicycle club or two, and being the subject of neighborhood gossip. These all might not be as well rounded and Sharon and her father are, but they’re close enough that you think you know them.

Back in college, I read The Commitments a lot — but I think I read The Snapper more. It’s not as fun as it’s predecessor, but it’s a better novel — populated with actual people, actual growth, and something that looks a lot like actual life for many people. The Rabbites could be your neighbors, and you’d be happy to have them, which makes getting to spend time with them between the covers of a book just that pleasant.

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4 1/2 Stars

Reread Project: The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

The CommitmentsThe Commitments

by Roddy Doyle
Series: The Barrytown Trilogy, #1

Paperback, 165 pg.
Vintage Contemporaries, 1987
Read: April 15, 2015

Will yeh please put your workin’ class hands together for your heroes. The Saviours o’ Soul, The Hardest Workin’ Band in the World, —Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes —The Commitments.

This is a tough one for me to talk about — I’m a long-time fan, I’ve read it a dozen or so times, it’s all I can do to not turn total fan-boy and just gush. eh, I might not try too hard.

My college roommates and I became fans of the music video for “Try a Little Tenderness” from the soundtrack for the movie adaptation, and we waited for what seemed like a interminable amount of time before the movie came to the art-house theater in town. I loved it from the opening sequence on and tracked down the novel the next day. It blew my mind (for reasons I’ll get into in a bit), and I read it a dozen or so times over the few years until I loaned it (and the rest of the trilogy) to someone at work. Naturally, I never saw him again (I ended up with a copy of Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and another book in the transaction). I finally let myself buy a replacement copy a few years ago (found a used copy with the same cover), and have now read it twice. And, if anything, my appreciation grows each time.

It’s the late 80’s and three young Dubliners (from the poorest part of Dublin) have formed a band — sort of. Not everyone in it are musicians yet, but they’re working on it. Thanks to the direction of their keyboard (defined in the loosest possible way) player, they’re going to play synth-pop and go by the name “And And! And” (and, yes, I got the exclamation point in the right place). Their first order of business (while learning how to play) is to hire a manager. Jimmy Rabbitte is the guy from their school/neighborhood who’s the area’s music/music industry expert. As evidenced by the fact that he’s the first one anybody knew of that was aware of Frankie Goes to Hollywood — and, even greater — he’s the first to realize how bad they were. Jimmie gets things going immediately by dropping the name (especially that !) and the keyboard player.

Instead, they’re going to play American soul music — and then put an Irish twist on it — local slang, geographic references, and so on. Jimmie puts an ad in the paper to recruit some musicians, hits up a coworker he heard at a company party, and so on. As a result, he collects a very strange crew of musicians — including a trumpet player decades older than the rest of them, with plenty of professional experience (the trumpet in “All You Need is Love,” for example). The rest, as they say, is history.

The story of The Commitments is told through a very unconventional prose and dialogue style. It’s like Doyle took Leonard’s 10 Rules to the furthest point possible (other than #7, which he violates in every line). You can hear these characters talk, you can feel the energy in the room — heck, this book comes closer to capturing musical performances better than anything this side of Memorex or vinyl. Couldn’t tell you what anyone looks like (well, The Commitmentettes are pretty attractive — especially Imelda), what their homes are like, the weather, or anything of that other stuff that tends to fill the pages of novels. But I can tell you what happened, to whom, and how all related reacted. Which is good enough for me.

This isn’t one of those books that gives you diminishing returns upon re-reading. It’s fresh (while dated — no idea how Doyle pulls that off), funny, and full of soul. Dublin soul, of course. Just like the rag-tag musicians that come to life in its pages.

Oh, if you can get your hands on the soundtrack albums (or find them streaming somewhere) to listen to while reading, it makes it all better (even though there’s almost no overlap between songs).

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5 Stars