The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

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The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Scott Kemp
Reviewed by Scott Kemp
Summary: The Commitments is an incredibly funny novel. Alongside the humour, though, there is a serious political agenda, and it is one that celebrates working-class life in Dublin.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 140 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099587538

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It's the mid to late 1980s, and Outspan, Derek and Ray have just formed a band. The trio is three days old, with 'Ray on the Casio and his little sister's glockenspiel, Outspan on his brother's acoustic guitar, [and] Derek on nothing', as he can't afford a bass. They already feel directionless. They don't mind Depeche Mode, but Derek and Outspan draw the line at The Human League, which is one of Ray's favourite groups. Such musical differences are already darkening the band's conception. There is also a problem with their name: And And And. Ray believes they should have an explanation mark after the second And, as it would 'look deadly on the posters'. Outspan, however, thinks Ray's an idiot, and tells him where to stick his second exclamation mark. But Outspan has a plan. They need to find Jimmy Rabbitte, for when it comes to music, Jimmy knows.

Jimmy Rabbitte is an oracle of music, his arcane information cherry-picked from the pages of the Melody Maker and NME (and even his 'sisters' Jackie one [is] looking'). With this in mind, Outspan and Derek approach him, trying to suss him out. Jimmy is prone to delivering lectures, although they usually result in spiritual uplift for the listeners rather than gloomy boredom. He tells them to ditch all the songs 'abou' love an' fields', because music is now about 'Sex an' politics'. But which musical genre has both sex and politics? Reggae? asks Derek. No, says Jimmy: it's 'Soul'. So, having bought into Jimmy's passionate homily, Outspan and Derek ask him to be their manager. He agrees, and immediately sacks Ray. He also gives them a new name: 'The Commitments', with a 'Good, old-fashioned THE'.

That, then, is a synopsis of the first fifteen pages of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments. What follows could easily be renamed The Rise and Fall of Dublin's Hottest Band ‒ although that wouldn't be as catchy. Despite the addition of some superb supporting characters, it's clear that Jimmy is the novel's hero. The band gives him an outlet for his dormant managerial skills, and with the help of the fantastic Joey The Lips Fagan ‒ a man who thinks Jaffa Cakes are 'Soul food' ‒ he assembles a motley crew of local musicians and singers. As Barrytown's newest and finest impresario, Jimmy spends his time hiring, auditioning, and networking for gigs and record deals. Yet he has bigger problems to attend to, such as reining in the egos threatening to destroy the band. As a collective there is plenty of musical cohesion but little spiritual unity, and it's this worrying mix Jimmy tries control ‒ without much luck. The random trysts, outbursts of arrogance, and crazy microphone manoeuvres foil any chance of reconciliation. The Commitments fall apart, but only Jimmy feels the wasted opportunity: his dream is over.

Strangely, though, the book is far from morbid. The Commitments is an incredibly funny novel, and there can be no doubt that Doyle has the timing of a stand-up comic. But there is a serious political agenda running alongside the jokes. Doyle invests his characters with a distinctly proletarian pride, and it is one they find deeply empowering. The band cast off the 'art school stuff' their friends listen to, as it's for kids with 'funny haircuts. An' rich das'. Jimmy disregards such music as 'bourgeois' nonsense, for he believes that music 'should be abou' where you're from an' the sort o' people yeh come from', i.e. the 'Workin' class'. As such, soul music is about sex and 'REVOLUTION!', and The Commitments are 'bringing the music, the Soul, back to the people.—The proletariat.—That's p,r,o,l,e,t,a,r,i,a,t.' This is why Joey The Lips fears the spectre of jazz, because it's 'Intellectual music...It's anti-people...It's abstract.' In short, it's not 'Dublin soul', working-class soul.

The book can be read in one rather long sitting. Sometimes, though, it reads more like a play than a novel, as Doyle's writing relies so heavily on its dialogue. Following James Joyce, Doyle's dialogue does away with the inverted commas and replaces them with a French-style dash instead; but, unlike Joyce, he is able to include all the expletives he needs to convey the working-class vernacular. Yet Doyle is also an innovator, and he recreates the sounds of the instruments on the page. For example, the bass and guitar for 'Reach Out I'll Be There' by the Four Tops is written like this: ‒DONG CADDA DONG CADDA DONG CADDA DONG ‒. It may not be the boldest of moves, but it starts the songs playing in your head, and once they've started chugging away, you realise Doyle's accuracy in capturing their rhythms. And that, despite its seeming simplicity, is a difficult (and funny) thing to do.

The Commitments was first published in 1987. As most people are aware, the novel has since been made into a hugely successful film (1991) and ‒ as the blurb on this Vintage reissue states ‒ 'A HIT STAGE SHOW!' It is easy to see the book's long-lasting appeal. It must have cast a spell on Doyle, too, as he went on to write two further instalments of the Rabbitte family history, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991). Collectively, these novels are known as the Barrytown Trilogy, and you can buy them as such. But Doyle didn't stop there. This year he released a further addition entitled The Guts, and so it would seem that he hasn't finished with the Rabbitte clan just yet. And why should he? Jimmy Rabbitte, even on this brief outing, is a wonderful creation, and once you've read this first book you will have to go on and read the others, because literature doesn't get much funnier than this.

But if the Rabbitte books aren't your thing, then why not check out the Booker prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha instead?

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