Roddy Doyle – an expansive writer with a career across novel, stage and screen, known for capturing the spirit and voice of working-class Dubliners – has long attracted criticism for being too broad and good-natured. Even his 1993 Booker win for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was howled down by snobs as an easy, populist choice. Doyle himself, as the decades pass, has responded by strolling at an ever-more leisurely pace down the middle of the road.
These days he writes a humour column in the Irish Independent under the name Charlie Savage – weekly fictional spiels from his avatar who, like Doyle himself, is a middle-aged Dubliner slouching towards his twilight years. Here, a year’s worth of those columns is collected in one volume, packed full of one-liners and rambling take-downs of Irish social mores.
Savage bumbles through various indignities, slipping from self-effacing and baffled to poignant within the space of a column, as he reconciles his own mortality with the ever-accelerating pace of change in modern Dublin. In one column, he gets a tattoo of SpongeBob SquarePants to delight a grandchild. In another, he renegotiates his relationship with a recently widowed drinking buddy who, late in life, has revealed she identifies as a woman.
Savage is apolitical, except for a degree of common sense (Trump is a “gobshite”, for example). He’s fundamentally good-hearted and accepting of others but can still be discombobulated by changing standards of the day. Take an exchange where he at once laments that you can’t call an opposing football team gay anymore, and agonises over providing a safe space for a son he thinks might be queer.
The episodic format means frequent callbacks to previous columns, which makes for a meandering, Dickensian flourish to anecdotes that wander and find themselves in the way of a story told over a pint. Running themes bob up and submerge again. Savage ruminates on the indignities of old age, on the nature of happiness, on how joy can be wrung from hardship and entropy. There is happiness to be found “in the prime of your decline”.
There’s wisdom to be found in this volume, and heart. But some readers might find that as a humour column, designed to be digested over breakfast, the punchlines land a long way from their target – somewhere, it must be said, over towards the middle of the road.
Jonathan Cape, 208pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Roddy Doyle, Charlie Savage". Subscribe here.