The Things We Carried

As mentioned earlier, I’ve been on vacation in Florida. Someone asked not too long ago if I get to read much for pleasure. The answer is “not enough,” as most writers will probably tell you. But that’s what vacation is for, right? This is more for personal history, but this is what one writer takes on vacation.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

I’The Gutsve been following Doyle’s work for almost a quarter-century now and I never get tired of his work. I’m particularly fond of The Last Roundup series, which follows the long arc of Henry Smart, an IRA assassin whose life hopscotches through some of the most fascinating periods of the twentieth century. But like many fans, I’m most pleased by the scathing and yet somehow good-natured humor of the Barrytown trilogy, a signed copy of which sits here in front of me. Many people are familiar with The Commitments via the 1991 Alan Parker film, while The Snapper puts the focus on Jimmy Rabbitte’s sister Sharon and The Van on Jimmy’s ‘Da.’

One of the great joys of the first novel was Jimmy Rabbitte’s undying love of music, accompanied by his unceasing criticism of bands that publicly loathed and sometimes secretly liked. It’s not seen in the film, but the end of the novel actually finds Jimmy forming a new group, The Brassers, a kind of punk/country band with Mikah Wallace, Outspan Foster and Derek Scully. I was surprised a few years ago to find a great little short story, “The Deportees,” which found the ever-hustling Jimmy forming a band that exclusively featured immigrants.

This all brings us to The Guts, which is a full-on sequel that catches fans up on the adventures of Jimmy Rabbitte. I was expecting a purely comic novel – and the book is funny as hell, mind you – but Doyle really brought his A-game to the writing as well. The economy of Doyle’s dialogue is devastating. As the book begins, Jimmy and his Da are in the pub, talking about Facebook while Jimmy tries to deliver some bad news.

—Grand. Are yeh havin’ another?
—No, said Jimmy. —I’m drivin’.
—Fair enough.
—I have cancer.
—Good man.
—I’m bein’ serious, Da.
—I know.

It’s a terrific novel that takes one of the author’s most popular characters and instead of catering to a fan base, treats the character as if he’s lived, just like all of the rest of us, in real time. The Celtic Tiger has treated Jimmy well, letting him run a business resurrecting one-hit wonders for we nostalgic old-timers, but he’s also faced with the diagnosis of bowel cancer, the prospect of aging disgracefully, all while managing his wife, his numerous kids, his schemes, and the trickiness of trying to text the right girl since he’s sleeping with Imelda Quirke, one of the backup singers from The Commitments. Jimmy also reunites with guitarist Liam “Outspan” Foster, whom he meets in the clinic where it turns out Outspan is being treated for lung cancer. There’s an underlying plot having to do with the concoction of a fake folk song from the 1920s, complete with a fake Hungarian band led by Jimmy’s son Marvin. But the joy is in revisiting Jimmy’s marvelous, witty, snarky voice and rooting for him to win even when the world seems impossible.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The MartianLook, it’s almost unheard of for me to take a debut novel on vacation. If I do bring something, it’s likely to be an adventure novel, or science fiction, or more likely an entry in a series or a novel I’ve set aside to read for pleasure. But I’ve heard a few things about this hard-science adventure novel and thought I would give it a try. It was also half-price as an e-book, which made it both affordable and transportable. It’s the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who is accidentally abandoned by his crew-mates during a dust storm. I have to admit that part of what grabbed me was Watney’s opening log: “I’m pretty much F***ed. That’s my considered opinion. F***ed.”

What makes this novel great (in the sense that it’s wildly entertaining, rather than important in the grand scheme of things) is that Watney is a riot of a character, an everyman who is as disgusted with his choice in leftover music (no more disco!) as he is terrified about his situation. It’s also the fact that Weir, a software engineer, science buff and obviously a giant geek, has really done his homework to figure out how Mark Watney could conceivably and realistically survive a year and a half on Mars until he can be rescued by the next scheduled mission. The author was also smart to set it during the third Mars mission, when the public back on Earth have forgotten how amazingly cool the whole enterprise is. (Did I mention I read this book the same week that I visited the Kennedy Space Center?) It’s easy to cheer for a fighting botanist who grows his own potatoes, tricks out his moon buggy, catches up on The Dukes of Hazzard and survives against all odds.

Anyway, well done to Andy Weir for a terrific debut. Note to self to revisit this as a book on tape during the next long drive.

Honorable Mention

You by Austin Grossman

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

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