It’s a big word, love. There’s love for a partner. Love for a parent. For one’s kids. A city. A country. For oneself.
So the choice of the word as the title of beloved Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s latest book is rather bold. “It’s quite arresting,” he agrees, talking on the phone from his home in Dublin. “It seems to promise a lot — a bit like going into the bullring with a red T-shirt.”
His answer is as elusive as the meaning of the word itself. Which is perhaps kind of the point. What joy would there be, after all, if we couldn’t think about love and write about it — and talk about it? You don’t just arrive at love. It’s a long, meandering conversation. The kind perhaps best conducted over a pint or two.
Davy and Joe are in their late 50s, two old friends who’ve met up after not seeing each other in a while. Davy long ago moved to London (a tried and true Irish tradition) with his wife, but he’s back, for a while this time, because his father is dying. Joe, meanwhile, has stayed in Ireland, married Trish and led a relatively conventional life.
They meet up in a newish restaurant, with wine and a nice meal. Joe leads with the news that he has left his wife for a slightly older woman (let’s eschew clichés right from the start) — one they both knew from 40 years ago, when they first saw her with a cello at a pub they call George’s, after the barman.
Joe is trying to explain to Davy why he left his wife — whom he loves, good sex and all — for this woman he’d run into at a parent-teacher meeting, after not seeing her for decades. And he’s having a heck of a job doing it.
As the two men talk, their conversation goes off on tangents; they circle around and circle back. A remark sparks reminiscing, taking us back, allowing Doyle to reveal the cultural history of Dublin over the past 30 years or so. In this way, Doyle builds the story through the dialogue, repeating themes and questions — getting to the heart of the thing anecdote by anecdote, revelation by revelation.
And so Davy remembers the day they discover George’s. “We’d found a pub that liked us,” Davy, the narrator, writes. It’s not the type of pub you go as a boy to get drunk. It was the type of pub you frequented as a man. “I remember how I felt. I’d entered a new state. I’d put on a man’s jacket. I was a man. Because I’d walked into this particular pub,” Davy recalls. “We were being shown a new life; we were observing the middle-class world, an ease, a grace we’d never seen before. It could be ours if we wanted it.”
And they chose.
“Love” is as much a love letter to pubs as it is an exploration of the emotion itself. It’s also “a love letter to a time of life … before complications arrive: family and children and things,” Doyle says. Like the rest of us he’s been in lockdown, so talk of pubs is more theoretical than based on recent experience.
Interestingly, most of the pubs in the book, Doyle says, are still there. The Sheds. The Palace Bar. But not George’s — fiction requires some latitude, after all.
But like Davy and Joe, Doyle says that it was in pubs where one learned about the possibilities in life; how to fit in, how to act. Particularly if you came from a working-class background.
“I was in college before I met people who seemed to be really comfortable in that world … even in their body language. They owned it, you know?” Doyle says. “The world I grew up in was very, very different.” It was a world before the Celtic Tiger, before the crash.
Doyle mentions the novel “Normal People” by compatriot Sally Rooney (who, at 29, is part of a new generation of writers) that certainly has class differences at its core. “It’s a great book and the series is enthralling,” he says. But watching it caused him to ponder. “I was thinking to meself that … if I was a young man or woman writing that book now, ‘Love,’ it wouldn’t be a novel, it would be a short story, because they’d be able to get to the point that much quicker,” he quips.
Which is to say, it wouldn’t be as tortured, he says, as he admires the ability of Rooney’s character Connell to be vulnerable and say things that expose himself: “I’ve never done this before.” “I found it quite moving,” says Doyle.
Masculinity, becoming a man, what it means to be a man are all touched on in this book. Rooney aside, during a time when there’s so much talk about toxic masculinity the manliness Doyle expresses, even in “Love,” seems to be a gentler kind.
“I think in some ways I didn’t want it to be a defence of masculinity, nothing as strident as that,” he says. “But it is what I am, you know. A heterosexual Irish man in his late middle years, I suppose you could say that. And that’s the material, that’s what I have.”
Davy and Joe haven’t been together in a while, and this night out they move from pub to pub, getting progressively drunker, their emotions and tongues loosening with every pint.
How did Doyle manage to get the balance between keeping them coherent enough that we wouldn’t want to stop hanging out with them?
“That was the challenge,” he says. “I mean it brought me right back to the first book I wrote, ‘The Commitments,’ when I was making up the rules, trying to capture the Dublin accent and at the same time not alienate people … that it wouldn’t be hard work to figure out what they’re saying.”
But dialogue and accent reveal other things. “It was a pain in the neck at times,” Doyle says, and a challenge for him as a storyteller, “but also hugely engrossing, (that) as the men get drunk, in a way the years begin to drop off.” They begin to speak with the accents of their younger selves. Before Davy went to London, before they’d grown into middle-class life with its “more sensible decisions, thinking about pension schemes.”
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Many of Doyle’s books, particularly in these last years, carry at their hearts the idea of a life that might have been. In the ironically named “Smile,” Victor Forde was abused by priests. The other life is: what might have been if that hadn’t happened? It’s about lost joy and lost potential, stolen by the abusers. In “Guts,” Barrytown trilogy favourite Jimmy Rabbitte is middle-aged and has bowel cancer; he revisits his younger life, even having an affair with Imelda Quirk.
In “Love,” Joe’s life is the one filled with might-have-beens. He was happy. And then the girl with the cello re-entered his life. Crisis sparked by a chance meeting.
“There’s a nostalgic yearning which a lot of us carry,” Doyle says. “Not just men, either. It explains, for example, how people meet on Facebook after not being in touch for 30 years, 40 years. They’re not looking for the (mature version) of the boy or the girl they knew back then. They’re looking for some ideal.”
The new woman fills, Joe says, “an emptiness or something … four wasted decades.” Joe repeats, in the only way he can explain, when he met her, when he was with her, it felt like home.
“I wrote the book and I do take full responsibility for it, but I do leave gaps in the storytelling so you would be wondering if she even exists,” he says. It’s a hint, perhaps? A bit of magic realism? Or just the shadow life that keeps some of us unsettled?
Which makes you wonder. Is it love? Or is it just the reckoning of a middle-aged guy who questions what might have been. What if we’d made a different decision when we were younger? Where would we be now?
“I recently reread ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ which is the shadow life at its most extreme,” says Doyle, “and he carried it off brilliantly. It’s so convincing. But it’s the same with ‘Smile,’ I was doing something there that I’d never done before. What would my life have been like if that hadn’t happened.”
The things that Davy and Joe talk about are the things that make up a life: love, home, family, dreams, mortality. But the chats are also about the love between friends.
“It struck me that it wasn’t just about them and women, and them and their past,” says Doyle. “It was about them, themselves, and their love for each other. And the incredible difficulty they have in actually expressing that.” It’s the male vulnerability he earlier envied in Rooney’s Connell.
Interestingly, and going back to the pub as the centre of all things, Joe and Davy haven’t been to each other’s homes in ages. Which, Doyle concedes, is not unusual.
“You know, my closest friend, who I’ve known since we were about 12, I haven’t been in his house in about 10 years,” says Doyle. “And he hasn’t been in mine. Up until up three months ago we’d meet in a local pub. Or if we were going to a football match we’d meet in a pub near the football stadium, or if we were going to a gig we’d meet somewhere before the gig. Always at a pub. And that’s where men of my age always met.”
He pauses and laughs.
“There’s a lot of homeless men floating around Dublin at the moment, looking a bit lost.”