Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle.
Jonathan Cape 2019
As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.
As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.
The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.
60-something Charlie tries hard, then, to cope with a multiplicity of assaults on his worldview: working hard to understand women and gender politics, to remember his grandkids’ names and the number of dogs he and his wife have, to cope with being a social influencer while being conflicted about his drinking buddy hooking up with an old flame. But he’s also immensely sentimental: about his partner, his children, his grandchildren; his father who passed on his love of Match of the Day and a propensity to shout ‘gobshite’ at the radio and tv; the dwindling group of schoolmates whom he sees once a year around Christmas; the quiet comradeship of his friend who identifies as a woman. And, in spite of life’s constant provocations — the kinds that can and do test the patience of the saint — there’s a quiet optimism about Charlie that is very appealing even when occasionally it’s misplaced:
The wife gets in a few hours after me.
—Come here, I say. —You don’t want me to change, do you?
She puts her hand on my back and pats it.
That’s a No. I’m safe for another year.
I sometimes rail against the present continuous tense in fiction as being exhausting to read when stretched to novel-length. Conversely, for me it works very well here with the journal-style entries, never more than four pages in this edition: it gives just the right kind of immediacy, and it’s laced with passages in the past tense when Charlie reminisces about matters historical. It’s also constructed of short paragraphs of maybe two or three sentences, with staccato conversations that mirror real to-and-fro between individuals, all of which drew this reader onwards.
For someone such as myself from outside Ireland there is a strange familiarity (or perhaps familiar strangeness) about the cultural references which comes from shared reference points, like football or songs or tv programmes, mingled with names and places that have little or no resonance but which feel as though I should know them. However, I often find I have to resist the temptation to lapse into the odd idiom like “Grand,” or “That’s gas,” or “He’s an evil bollix,” which wouldn’t do at all.
As with all the best comic novels there are touches of poignancy which tell us that this is all about being human. The fact that Charlie feels like the kind of human you may well want to spend time with, because he reminds you of your own frailties, is testament to Doyle’s skill; and all Charlie’s little foibles and frequent faux pas are easily forgiven because you know his heart is in the right place. I wouldn’t want him to change.
A review for today, dedicated to your man St Patrick, as part of my reading for Begorrathon 2021, this year’s Reading Ireland Month. Thanks go to Cathy who provided this in a prize draw all of two years ago, and apologies for my having only just got round to it. It’s also another entry in my European Reading Challenge 2021 after visiting France and Spain.