It took me three or four days to read Roddy Doyle’s LOVE, his most recent novel. When I ordered it, I also added a copy for a family member who has had a difficult few months. I felt instantly that I wouldn’t read it alone. I decided that this story of two old friends—age 60, give or take—in endless conversation in pubs during one long day in Dublin, was a book I wanted to share with my above-mentioned loved one, a good-hearted man who is my age (we are contemporaries of the protagonists of LOVE, referred to simply as Davy and Joe), hoping it might resonate with him—as a manly man and passionate hockey player, he has likely spent more time in pubs with “the fellas” than I have—and move him, too. I wanted to send him LOVE, so I did.
Upon receiving the book in the mail June 29th, he wrote a quick message to me, saying:
“I thank you for the latest addition to my reading list. Every list needs some Love.
Love to you, and I hope you’re doing well.”
It made me smile. He was on board.
I knew nothing about LOVE, and discovered it quite by accident. I had never read a Roddy Doyle novel; the insight I had into his writing was the result of having seen several movie adaptations of his stories—The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van come to mind. But here was the Canadian edition on my computer screen, and I knew I must read it.
It was as though someone had been playing anagrams with a handful of letters.
The novel explores Davy and Joe’s friendship, which goes way back to when they were barely twenty and still wet behind the ears. Though Davy finished his university studies and moved to England shortly after his marriage to Faye while Joe remained in Dublin, found work and married Trish, they have maintained the ritual, over decades, of getting together as often as possible in Dublin—and specifically, in a Dublin pub to chew the fat.
Because what these men want to do is talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. If truth be told, LOVE is three-hundred endearing pages of dialogue—almost exclusively—both present time and remembered: most of it between Davy and Joe, but an important portion of it consisting of evoked conversations with others in the past—especially with Faye, Trish and a small number of important characters. Apparently, conversation is improved when one is well liquored up, and Davy and Joe are on the tear, as they say in Ireland (thought taking in just enough food to stay vertical).
In fact, by the novel’s end, they’re well ossified (the drunker they get, the more the F-word, in all its expressions, is spun into their speech: one rather obsessive-compulsive reviewer of the novel counted 558 variations of it). But it doesn’t seem to be helping Joe, who is a man on a mission to tell Davy about the woman, Jessica—the beauty they both met briefly in their youth—and of his recently ignited love affair with her, which he claims to have chosen to pursue, leaving his wife and damaging his relationship with his grown children. But despite their effortless, back and forth, sometimes circular and almost always elliptical banter, and despite Davy’s cajoling and frequent exasperation, neither the reader nor Davy are entirely sure, by day’s end, what, exactly, Joe’s story is: how much of it is fanciful and how much is truth.
This is the touching contradiction of Roddy Doyle’s novel: how these two men are able to maintain a constant flow of chatter and still struggle to reveal themselves to one another. Frequent are the moments when, attempting to confide something important, this failure is mentioned, as Joe does, while describing what he has found in his new life with Jessica:
“—Well, I don’t know, Davy, he said. — I keep tryin’ to think o’ the words. Words to do it justice. On paper, like – I’m guilty. I can see tha’. I left my wife and family for another woman.
[…] —But I hope that’s clear, Davy. I didn’t do what I’ve done for – like a cliché.”
It’s Davy who guides the reader through the banter and ultimately, it is he we’re able to know more deeply and to feel great empathy for, as his own experiences of loss are incrementally and beautifully revealed.
With all of the reviews I collected that were written by men (that’s all I was able to find, and stopped after five), and this story of male friendship, a woman might expect to feel somewhat shut out by the book, and I admit to having had my fears early on when I realized that Davy and Joe were mostly set on spinning a mixture of yarns, memories and truths about the women in their lives: their wives and Jessica. I expected jadedness. I feared bitterness and the kind of cynicism or disillusionment you could perhaps expect, in life or fiction, when men are speaking of wives who have aged along with them. Contemporary portrayals of mature marriages are so often tinged with an exhausted emptiness.
But this wasn’t at all the case. This was not the story Roddy Doyle wanted to tell. LOVE, in fact, explores the depths, strengths and imperfections of devoted long term romance and its mutations through time, and it’s rather wonderful and tender, though free of rose-coloured glasses, as in this conversation between Faye and Davy, who in this passage have been living together a couple of months, and which Davy reconstructs for the reader:
“ Faye rarely laughed. It was another thing I loved about her. It was always a surprise. And a victory.
—That’s what I mean, she said.
—I’m the one who’d normally have said something like that, she said.
—True, I said.
—It’s you, I said.
—So then, what’s you?
—I’m the one who loves you for it, I said.
—Is that right?
—I like that, she said. —Oh, I do like that.
And she did. For a long time. Maybe she still does.”
LOVE is an engaging, touching, often laugh-out-loud funny, very genuine novel. I loved it.