Journalism

journalism

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

1:09 p.m. CST, January 24, 2014

The stories of aging rock stars are now old and familiar. But what about aging elitist rock snobs?

Take Jimmy Rabbitte. Bored with his job, he huddles around the kitchen table with his wife one night to launch a website dedicated to soliciting and then promoting Irish bands that long ago vanished into the vortex of punk and prog-rock irrelevance.

Bands with names like the Halfbreds, Dangerous Dream and the Legovers, and the Irregulars. Bands that even Rabbitte doesn't very much like.

With real-life recording labels like Omnivore Recordings, Light in the Attic, Chicago's Numero Group, and others invested, and succeeding, in resurrecting once-beens, could-have-beens and never-beens, this is not only a conceivable business model but one that is wholly original in a work of fiction.

Irish writer Roddy Doyle knows there are golden stories to be mined behind each band breakup, especially those that force its members to march back to real-world boredoms like health scares, divorce and dying parents. This is the world of "The Guts." Like his British counterpart Nick Hornby, Doyle draws life from the hidden margins of rock mythology, but the great flaw of both writers is how they crowbar their prose with constant name-checking of modern-day bands — Grizzly Bear, The xx, Sigur Rós — that feels less organic to the prose and more a strategic wink to the Pitchfork generation to win their approval.

Rabbitte made his debut in Doyle's "The Commitments" in 1987 as the long-suffering manager of the blue-eyed soul band of the same name, which eventually made its way to the screen in the 1991 film. This update finds him at the doorstep of a midlife crisis: a daughter nearly expelled from school for drunkenness; the family business on the brink of collapse; a sex life divided between wife and mistress; a new dog that is always underfoot; a nighttime robber in his kitchen; a lost brother he searches for via Google; and bowel cancer.

That last discovery is the undercurrent of everything else. Cancer may be a reliable weeper elsewhere, but here Doyle uses it to show his characters' resilience: They mock and downplay it, but always with tenderness, not cruelty. Receiving treatment is the only time where Rabbitte faces the ugly reality of his situation.

"The thing he really hated about this place was the fact that he was so near people with cancer. Women with wigs like crash helmets, men who should never have been bald. Pinheads. He only felt dangerously sick when he was here," Doyle writes.

Almost all the people in his life, from his father to his mistress, appear so guarded that when they hear the bad news, they laugh or shrug. These are hearty Dubliners living busy lives who cope with cancer as they would a broken fuel pump: It'll cost a lot of money, but you make the necessary calls to get it fixed and move on.

Fine for them, but in following the growing weeks and months of Rabbitte's cancer scare, tracking what this novel is about blurs. There is an excess of moving parts here, and none appear towering over the rest. Doyle is committed to keeping the flame of drama dialed low, which becomes more pronounced by his preference for streams of dialogue, with sparse exposition. Here is a novel the NSA would approve: Reading becomes an exercise in eavesdropping on dialogue that, at its best, shows the deep affection these characters have for each other, especially when Rabbitte checks in on his sons and daughter, or tries to jump-start a relationship with his brother, sequestered in England.

But this novel is burdened with an excess of small talk; much of Doyle's dialogue consists of greetings and farewells, jabs and complaints, scheduling and other niceties. True, the mundane can speak to multitudes, but here, minutiae means minutiae.

As the novel feels its way to a conclusion, a goal appears: Rabbitte schemes to have his son and friends record a made-up death ballad in the guise of a fictional 1932 singer modeled after Robert Johnson. They create a Wikipedia entry and hash out the biographical details: Is he black or white? American or Irish? What killed him young — opium, heroin or drink?

Of course the song becomes a YouTube hit, and Rabbitte's son an unexpected star. Indeed, the mythology required to sell music is, and always has been, absurd. So when Rabbitte hears the song — which he wrote — it becomes clear it is about him. We knew the same pages ago.

 

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