A man at the far side of middle age has a chance meeting with an old flame that upends his marriage and changes his life.
Same old story, right?
Not in the hands of Irish writer Roddy Doyle. His new novel, Love, turns one such tale into a funny, poignant, profane, unpredictable conversation about friendship, marriage, parenthood, aging, Dublin pubs and the eternal mystery of the title.
This is the 18th book of fiction for adults from Doyle; he has also written novels for children, short stories, plays, screenplays and nonfiction. He won the Man Booker Prize in 1993 for his exuberant novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. His first book, The Commitments, published in 1987, is the rollicking story of a bunch of Dublin kids forming an R&B band and remains one of my all-time favorite music novels (and was made into one of my all-time favorite music movies).
Davy and Joe, this book’s main characters, aren’t rocking and rolling much these days. They were close friends in their roaring days, a friendship developed amid the Dublin tradition of pub crawling and the near-universal young male tradition of scoping out girls who are out of their league.
That was before they had marriages, families, careers. Joe stayed in Dublin, Davy moved to London, but they’ve kept in touch into their late 50s, meeting for drinks and dinner occasionally when Davy comes home to visit his widowed father.
It’s a superficial friendship at this point, as Davy notes: “I’d never met his children and I didn’t know their names. We told each other about the kids, brought each other up to date whenever we met, and then forgot about them. I hadn’t seen Trish [Joe’s wife] in twenty years.”
But this visit is different. Joe has a story he is intent on telling, and the only person he can tell it to is Davy. So, over the course of an afternoon and night of pub crawling (despite Davy’s insistence that “I didn’t drink now. ... A glass of wine, the occasional bottle of craft beer at home — that was me”) both of them take a deep dive into the past.
It all started a year ago, Joe tells Davy, when he and his wife went to parent-teacher night at his daughter’s school. They split the list of meetings, so Trish was elsewhere in the school when Joe saw a vision. “He saw her at the end of a corridor and he knew. Immediately.”
She’s a woman first identified as the girl with the cello, a girl they both met when they were 21, a girl whose name Joe doesn’t even remember when he sees her. But she knew him, he tells Davy, she kissed him, she began to talk with him as if they were still close even though he hadn’t laid eyes on her in 35 years. And immediately, he feels that that’s true.
As he insists to Davy, the relationship that forms isn’t about an unhappy marriage or sex or “a mid-life thing.” He likens it to waking from amnesia: “He felt like he was living his real life. ... It felt familiar and right. It was an emptiness filled; it had always been this way. This was how he felt. He was in the rest of his life.”
Love, like much of Doyle’s fiction, is made up largely of dialogue, as if we were down the bar eavesdropping. But the first-person narrative is from Davy’s point of view, and his reactions to Joe’s story are strange. At first he tries to kid Joe out of his seriousness, to cast the reunion as just another mid-life thing.
But Davy’s thoughts hint that something more is going on. His life is upended too; he’s on the outs with his wife, a force of nature named Faye. From the first time they met, he tells us, she “overwhelmed me. I’d never known a funny woman. Faye was funny and knew it, and she knew she was often hated for it.”
What’s more, Davy’s father is dying. “I came from a silent house,” he tells us. “My father and I passed each other and smiled. We spoke when we needed to, when we sat together at the kitchen table. My mother’s death destroyed him. ... I was twelve when she died, and the radiators went cold. The bedroom was cold, the hall and the landing were cold.” As an adult, he can understand his father being paralyzed by grief, but the lonely boy he was still lives in his heart.
And Davy clearly remembers the girl with the cello just as well as his friend does — although he doesn’t admit it to Joe.
That girl is important to both of them as a link to their youth. There’s a gorgeous set piece early in the book where Doyle describes them as young men discovering “their” pub. It’s not just where they’ll connect with the girl; it’s the place where they first envision themselves as men instead of boys. Doyle’s description of the place, the regular customers moving in and out, the polished rhythms of the bartenders, the changes in light and sound, will make anyone who loves a good bar feel a pang of longing. It’s their clean, well-lighted place, and Doyle gives a funny wink to Hemingway just to make it clear.
But they can’t go back. All Joe can do is try to tell his story true, and all Davy can do is try to face his own truth.
By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 336 pages, $27