This is the third and last of Roddy Doyle’s novels about the Rabbitte family of Barrymount, an unprepossessing council estate suburb of North Dublin, much like Kilbarrack, where Doyle was born himself. Barrymount, although by no means a foul rag-and-bone shop, is a place for dreams to start. In The Commitment young Jimmy Rabbitte decides that Ireland is ready for soul music and gets his group together. Just as there seems to be a chance with a recording company they desert him one by one. In The Snapper Sharon Rabbitte, drunk in the car park at the Soccer Club Christmas do, gets pregnant by that fucking old eejtt Mister Burgess – the father, what’s more, of a friend of hers. Still, the family will help to look after her snapper, and she can always pretend she’s had a night out with a sailor. In The Van Jimmy Rabbitte St is helping to run a fish-and-chip van. It ends up a wreck. All these could be called success stories. What matters is the strength to believe in possibilities. There is hardly any of the bitterness here which the past generates. Barrymount, as Doyle shows it, is not much interested in the What Happened Shite.
The van is Jimmy Sr’s book, but since The Snapper he has become a much weaker figure. He is a skilled plasterer, but his firm has let him go. He no longer has a car, hangs about the public library (where they’ve run out of Action Packs for the Unemployed) and fixes things about the house – one at a time, though, to make them last. His relationship with Darren, the youngest son, the clever one, has deteriorated. When he tells the argumentative Darren not to forget who paid for the dinner that’s in front of him, Darren answers: ‘I know who paid for it. The State.’ But Darren wishes he had not said this.
Jimmy Sr’s tools are not likely to be needed again.
Jimmy Sr had a mug for work that he’d had for years; he still had it. It was a big plain white one, no cracks, no stupid slogans. He put two teabags in it; used to. My God he’d never forget the taste of the first cup of tea in the morning, usually in a bare room in a new house with muck and dirt everywhere, freezing; fuck me, it was great; it scalded him on the way down; he could feel it all the way. And the taste it left, brilliant; brilliant. He always used two bags, squeezed the bejesus out of them ... After a few gulps he’d sip at it and turn around and look at his work ... Then he’d gulp down the rest of the tea and get back to it. The mug was outside in the shed, in a bag with his other work stuff. He’d wrapped toilet paper around it.
Jimmy Sr would normally say ‘jacks paper’, but not in this passage, where we need to feel his respect for the mug. This surely is what Doyle means when he says he wants to show his characters thinking, rather than himself writing.
He prefers, however, to write largely in dialogue. As a teacher in a Dublin Community School he knows how people talk, but a teacher’s viewpoint is not what he wants. The dialogue is heard in concerted passages, and Doyle has a range of dashes, longer dashes, and exclamation marks which act as a kind of musical notation. The language itself, like James Kelman’s Glaswegian, has its repetitions and limitations, but is subtle when you get to know it. Jimmy Sr notices at their dinner, when they’re talking about what’s happening these days, that ‘the twins called Thatcher Thatcher and Bush Bush but they called Gorbachev Mr Gorbachev: that said something.’ Tom Paulin has said that Doyle ‘pushes Irish English to wonderful imaginative extremes’, but doesn’t mean by this quite what you might expect. Doyle is a wordmaster and you have to trust him, and do trust him, as to when the right word is ‘Jaysis’ and when ‘Jesus’ or ‘Good Jayesus’, and the distinction between Hiyeh, Hiyis and Howyeh. ‘Fucking’ (which is usually taken to have lost any meaning at all) is an indicator in this novel of character and situation. Veronica, the mother, never uses it, and there is a swearbox on the kitchen table in consideration of Gina, Sharon’s snapper. All agree with this on principle. ‘Bitches,’ says Sharon to her young sisters, ‘if Gina starts usin dirty language I’ll kill yiz.’ Jimmy’s great friend Bimbo, a bakery worker, ‘hardly ever said Fuck’, and this establishes him as what he is, a mild nature, a sensitive. His doorbell plays the first bars of ‘Strangers in the Night’, although there doesn’t seem much point to it when his house is the ‘exact same’ of all the others in the street and you could hear a knock on the door anywhere in the house.
Bimbo, then, dispenses with Barrymount’s metalanguage, and Jimmy Sr himself knows there is a time and place for it. On Christmas morning, for instance, he is stuck making conversation with Bimbo’s old mother-in-law.
Maybe she hadn’t said anything. Maybe she couldn’t help it, she couldn’t control her muscles, the ones that held her mouth up.
He heard feet on the path.
It was out before he knew it. And she nodded; she did; she’d heard him, oh christ!
She couldn’t have. No, she just nodded at the same time, that was all. He hoped.
Doyle takes a risk with the structure of his new book, which is more complex than the other two. It starts in a low key, reflecting Jimmy Sr’s empty days. About a quarter of the way through Bimbo, too, is let go by his bakery firm and puts part of his redundancy money into a fish-and-chip van. With no wheels, no brakes, no engine, no water, no electricity, filthy, too, almost beyond purification, the van might stand for the valiant illusions of Barrymount. Neither Bimbo nor Jimmy Sr knows even how to peel a potato. But they open up for business, and the book’s action gets into gear with demonic scenes of frying and spilling and beating the frozen cod, hard as chipboard, against the rusty freezer. The family lend a hand as the van becomes a kind of fortress under siege. The fellow from the Environmental Health is on their track. Kids try to disconnect the gas canisters. One of Gina’s nappies gets fried in batter (‘it’d look like a piece of cod, folded up,’ says Bimbo to the raving customer). All these splendours and miseries keep pace (the year is 1990) with Ireland’s successes in the World Cup.
The country had gone soccer mad. Oul’ ones were explaining offside to each other ... There were no proper dinners being made at all. Half the mammies in Barrymount were watching the afternoon matches ... The whole place was living on chips.
Parked outside the Hikers’ Nest for the quarter-finals, the reeking van reaches the height of its earthly glory and Jimmy Sr takes home £160 on top of the dole. ‘And then they got beaten by the Italians and that was the end of that.’
After this dramatic check comes the third movement of the book. The publishers have accurately described The van as ‘a tender tale of male friendship, swimming in grease and stained with ketchup’. With the decline of the chipper trade comes a falling-out which we wouldn’t have thought possible. Bimbo – or perhaps it was his wife Maggic, one of those destructive women with a grand head on her shoulders – comes to believe that he’d do better with the van on his own. Jimmy Sr, once again, is let go. Roddy Doyle, however, has an impeccable sense of endings. We last see the two of them by night on the strand at Dollymount, the place where Stephen Dedalus recognised his destiny. They’re knee-deep in the freezing water (‘Jeeesus!!’), shoving drunkenly at the poxy van which has come between them and which, Bimbo confusedly knows, must be committed as a sacrifice to the sea. Even so, ‘You’ll be able to get it when the tide goes out again,’ says Jimmy Sr.
The Commitments has been filmed and the film rights of The Snapper are sold. When they get round to The van, let’s hope they can find a way of conveying the delicacy of human feeling in this book, and above all in its last scene.