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Rabbitte remembered: Novelist Roddy Doyle revisits working-class Dublin music scene

February 5, 2014 at 6:47 PM EST
Writer Roddy Doyle says he never kills off his characters, which means he can revisit them decades later. But in his latest book, one of his famous protagonists must face his own mortality, on top of middle age and a changing music industry. Doyle talks to Jeffrey Brown about “The Guts,” and band manager Jimmy Rabbitte, first featured in “The Commitments” in 1987.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a look at family, love and growing old, all with humor and a musical beat.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been almost 30 years since we were first introduced to music fanatic Jimmy Rabbitte in the novel “The Commitments.” He was the manager of a ragtag Irish band determined to bring soul music to Dublin. The book was made into a popular movie in 1991.

Flash forward to today, as we learn in the new novel “The Guts,” in which Rabbitte is facing middle age, changing times in the music world and his own mortality.

Author and Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle joins us now.

Welcome to you.

RODDY DOYLE, author, “The Guts”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first thing I should ask, I guess, is, what made you want to revisit these characters? I know they were popular for a lot of people, but they called you somehow.

RODDY DOYLE: Well, it’s always tempting — or I find it always tempting to go back to characters. I have never killed any of them.

More than a quarter of a century since I had finished with Jimmy Rabbitte, and I thought, seeing as I had written about him in a time of recession, which at the time we thought was normal life in Ireland…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RODDY DOYLE: And then, having climbed out of that and spectacularly fallen back into it, I thought it would be interesting to go back to some old characters and see how they were responding to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you are interested in looking at societal changes through these characters?

RODDY DOYLE: Well, I am. I suppose — I’m not sure if I’m interested in it, per se, but if you’re going to write about characters in the present day, you have to be, really, because you have to accept that even though he’s having an old-fashioned conversation, for example, at the beginning of the book between himself and his father, they both have cell phones, and they both use them.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, it starts with him, with his father asking about this thing Facebook, right?

RODDY DOYLE: Facebook, wanting to know a bit about Facebook.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RODDY DOYLE: And Jimmy pretends he doesn’t know anything about Facebook, but he does, because he’s involved in online music sales, so he has to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RODDY DOYLE: And I knew nothing about Facebook either, but I have to. I had to find out a bit about it.

So, yes, it kind of — in a way, it forces me out of the attic where I work, my office. But it feels like — if he has a family and there are teenagers in the family, how do they communicate? He knows or he wants to know. And once you decide to write something in the present day, whatever the current day, little, little moments, you know, little moments creep into it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the other thing that’s happened in the time, we’re older, right?

RODDY DOYLE: Oh, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, Jimmy Rabbitte is in middle age.

RODDY DOYLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so all these things, financial security, insecurity, what has he done with his life, and he learns he has cancer.

RODDY DOYLE: Yes.

Some years ago, cancer was added to the list of things that I talk about with my friends when we meet for a pint on a Thursday night. It used to be football and — soccer, that is — and music and our children. And then there were five of us, and then there were four of us because one us died.

And cancer very much became one of the topics. And we knew other people who had cancer. And, you know, you’re worried. And then you find out. I remember having a medical and I was told that the good news is, you’re too old for testicular cancer. And I was dying to get out, so I could text my pals. You won’t believe what the great news is.

(LAUGHTER)

RODDY DOYLE: But, on the other hand, there are another couple waiting for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, you know, you’re laughing as you tell this, and this is what so strikes me when I’m reading this book, is it’s about — in part, it is about a guy who gets cancer and has it deal with it. It’s historically funny.

RODDY DOYLE: I would hope so, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You would hope so?

RODDY DOYLE: Yes. Yes. That’s the plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because?

RODDY DOYLE: Well, it’s one way of confronting.

I don’t think when you — when you laugh at things, you’re not evading them. I feel that you’re confronting them. You’re running headlong into them, I think. And even these days with texting, something awful happens, the first thing that arrives by text is the joke. It could be perceived as cruel, but it is a way of coping.

And I think, yes, the book isn’t — I hope it’s not tasteless, you know? And I was trying to think, if I was in this position, what would I do? What would I do? How would I address the fact to my children? And I have got laughter. It certainly was the case when I grew up, and it still is in our house. And my father is 90, and he still makes me laugh. So, it’s part of what I grew up with, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two great themes that I see from many of your books over time, starting with the trilogy, with “The Commitments,” working-class Dublin and music.

RODDY DOYLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where — why?

RODDY DOYLE: Well, I grew up in one listening to the other.

(LAUGHTER)

RODDY DOYLE: It’s as simple as that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s as simple as that?

RODDY DOYLE: Yes, yes.

I suppose I grew up — in many ways, as a writer, I’m blessed. Even growing older is a great thing if you’re a writer and you can use this material. It’s a very healthy way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RODDY DOYLE: You know, when decrepitude and the humiliation of…

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re feeling OK about it?

RODDY DOYLE: I take notes.

(LAUGHTER)

RODDY DOYLE: And it’s the same when I grew — when I was a very small child, I was living in what seemed like a rural area of Dublin, the very edge of the city.

And then, as I got older into my teens, the fields that surrounded our house were dug up and they became working-class housing estates. So, to say I knew the area would be a bit of an understatement, because I knew the layers that were under the area.

And music, it’s just I’m one of among billions of people on the planet who love music. I have nothing really deep or dark to say about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it stayed with you?

RODDY DOYLE: Yes. Yes. Yes. I would hope so, yes, yes.

I recently took the records, the vinyl down out of the attic and have reinstated the front room as the home of vinyl, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Just like Jimmy Rabbitte.

RODDY DOYLE: And my kids have entered into the spirit as well, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The new novel is “The Guts.”

Roddy Doyle, thanks so much.

RODDY DOYLE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We have more from Roddy Doyle. He reads an excerpt from his new novel on Art Beat.