Two Pints

ireland-531137_1920I’ve written about Roddy Doyle on this blog before, and I’ve written lots about Irish literature in general. In the past I’ve said—though possibly not in writing but only to people I was boring with my opinions in person—that Irish fiction, even the popular, not especially difficult or interesting stuff, tends to be better than its American counterpart. I stand by that statement. They’ve just got a more literary culture, with a tradition that ordinary folks are proud of. We have our own literary history too, of course, and plenty of us care about it, but not the average person, I’d say. Not anymore. Most people don’t give one solitary shit about Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. I’m American so I’m allowed to say this. And I’m not saying it to be insulting, I just know it to be true.

Roddy Doyle has for years written about ordinary Irish people and their problems and perspectives, their voices and turns of phrase. His most famous novels, the Barrytown Trilogy, are about a working class family in Dublin who start a soul group (The Commitments), have a baby (The Snapper). and open a chippy (The Van). Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a heart breaker about a ten-year-old boy and his little family; they too live in Barrytown, a fictional neighborhood on Dublin’s Northside. Paula Spencer, one of my most dearly loved fictional heroines of all time, has gone through some tough things and is an alcoholic—though by the second novel in the Paula Spencer series she’s clean and sober, starting over. All of these books kept me rapt and fully engrossed, laughing and crying—sobbing, even—out loud as I read. Fiction like this is one of the reasons I wanted to visit Ireland, back before I’d done so for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever read more than I did during the year or so that I lived there (and I managed to fit in a lot of living around all that reading, too). The stories and poems of that place, they call to me. A writer like Colm Toibin writes stories that feel timeless, but Roddy Doyle gives us something more of-the-moment, or at least in-the-moment. You feel like you’re really there, in the friendliest of ways, even when the people you’re meeting are half killing you with their sadness.

The attitude in Doyle’s fiction is essentially Irish—essentially Dublin, really—but it chimes with what I know of the people here in Philadelphia as well, which is also a very down-to-earth, no-bullshit sort of place, at its best. Lots of Irish people here, of course, and this time of year always brings that back for me, the shamrocks and pots of gold in people’s front windows and old men in Aran sweaters reminding me of the Catholic school—who am I kidding, the Catholic world—of my childhood. 

I read Two Pints when it was published as a book in 2012. In fact I bought a copy from Amazon UK, an expensive indulgence I don’t normally allow myself, just so I wouldn’t have to wait for it to be released in this country. It’s a fine little book, just a series of conversations, each one with the date at the top. That’s it, no names even, just talking. Conversations between two men, friends, over pints in the pub. The themes are big—marriage, illness, death—but also small: football, HD TV, parking the car. The two men have a love of fun and conversation that felt real to my memory of that place and the people I knew there, who were always trying to one-up each other with their piss-taking and quick wit. In a short interview I watched this morning, Doyle explains that he initially published some of these conversations as Facebook posts but soon envisioned what he was writing as a play, which is what it eventually became. And now I have seen the play, earlier this month when it toured here to Philadelphia, and what a treat that was. A Sunday afternoon with a snowstorm about the start, and us inside a warm, crowded pub with pints of Guinness in front of us. The production was done by the Abbey Theater in Dublin, which is Ireland’s national theater, and it plays on the stage there, but it has also done two tours across Ireland in pubs. Now they’re doing a few dates in the United States this way, putting on the play in bars instead of theaters. Joe and I saw it at the Blarney Stone, a cozy, divey Irish pub in West Philly that I’d never been to but my sister remembered fondly as a Drexel hangout. They had a few drink specials on the chalkboard, and even though I really only wanted to drink Guinness I had to ask the bartender what “The Gritty” was. “It’s … You don’t want it. It’s a rum punch. It’s orange with two googly eyes. It’s a hangover.” He was charming and quick and droll; he could have been in the play himself. 

Joe and I sat at a small table just behind the actors, who were at the bar. They were lit from above, and Irish football jerseys and Dublin pennants were hung around the place’s regular, real decorations. The actors, Liam Carney and Lorcan Cranitch, were miked of course as well, but basically the art direction was invisible because the whole thing felt real. For a couple of hours the two men talked and we eavesdropped, and frequently laughed; they drank and we drank; at the end I cried and I’m sure a lot of other people did too. A few times the actors looked out into the crowd as they talked about some old friend or neighbor who was there somewhere, and once or twice they looked right into my face. I was embarrassed and delighted. The play has only three characters in total, and one of them is the barman, a long-suffering looking guy who says absolutely nothing until the very end, when he mutters fuck’s sake or something like that to himself, closing the play.

I loved hearing the characters’ accents and the turns of phrase I remembered from the time I spent in Dublin. The way Irish people say amn’t just like they say isn’t and aren’t and didn’t. The way they pronounce the word film like fill’em. The way the word fuck (fook?) acts as noun, verb, adjective, and hello-how-are-ya. One of the characters, each time he was about to introduce a new topic, would say the idiomatic phrase Come here, and I remembered with amusement how baffled I was when I met a lovely woman in Derry and had a great long talk with her, and how every time she wanted to ask or tell me something she’d first say Come here to me now, and after a while I had a terrible fear that if I got any closer to her I’d be sitting in her lap.

Come here. He must have said it twenty times during those three acts. Come here, I want to tell you something funny, something sad, something silly, something true. I love the intimacy of that phrase, and I loved being there for that show, with no stage to separate the players from the audience. With everyone’s cell phones tucked away it felt even more special, not mere entertainment or even art but like a real moment from our own lives, something you had to be there to experience. 

After the play ended Joe and I went home, the drama of our own small lives continuing as the heavy wet snow came down on us. We hustled to get out of the weather and into the subway station. Got take-out for dinner—the new fried chicken place is incredible, get the house-made buffalo sauce if you go. At home the cat caught a mouse, right under the coffee table while we ate! We’ve gotta do something about the fucking mice in this house. Maybe when the weather warms up they’ll move on. Come here, that reminds me of something else I’ve been wanting to tell you …

Like walking through clear water in a pool painted black

Have I written about Colm Tóibín on this blog before? I don’t think I have. Just a year ago I read his most recent book, Nora Webster, and felt a little crushed inside by how beautiful it was. I reviewed it for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I remember writing that, when I read most novels, I flatter myself that I can see, for the most part, how they were made. That’s not to say that I could WRITE one, mind you. But I read a hell of a lot and I’m a pretty good reader, and of course I’m a writer myself and I have a feeling for how language is used. I can usually see the underpinnings of even very sophisticated pieces of fiction, understand what makes them successful or unsuccessful; I can picture the writer at work.

But I really can’t figure out how Colm Tóibín does what he does. I read The Blackwater Lightship this summer, after Nora Webster. Though it deals with a much sadder and more sensitive subject—the painful death of a young man from AIDS—it doesn’t try to break your heart any more than Nora Webster does. (Her story, in fact, is quietly, gloriously hopeful, the story of a person coming back to life.) Both books are weighty and serious without being solemn, somehow; both exist within the same kind of silence that Tóibín creates with his language, though I can’t see how he creates it. It’s a kind of magic. I mean, each word is perfectly used, and there is never a word to spare. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing. The important, the necessary thing is the way he seems to make the language disappear. It has almost no style, if you will. Tóibín does let a sly, wry wit shine through sometimes (he’s Irish; you get the feeling he can’t help it) but basically he is not interested in making you laugh, or making you cry, or making you anything. He isn’t even an especially visual writer. He just tells us how things are in such an unadorned way that we believe him, trust him, completely. He’s god, and he’s hanging the moon in the sky and putting down a few mountains over here, and then there’s Dublin over there. What he describes becomes real.

There’s another writer I can think of who does this: Edward P. Jones, the American fiction writer. They’re both so good it’s almost scary, though I find I have a very warm feeling for Colm Toibin, while I remember feeling a bit awed and frightened by the skill Jones employs. And as good as, say, Ray Carver was—and he was one of the best—you could imitate his style. It’s distinctive. That’s true of most of the great writers, come to think of it. Think of Flannery O’Connor, for fuck’s sake. She never doesn’t sound like Flannery O’Connor. But I’m not sure you could write a paragraph in the “style” of Colm Tóibín’s prose. You’d have to remake yourself into the best writer who ever lived first, and then I guess you could give it a try.

I started a book of his short stories today, Mothers and Sons. I’m in his world now and I want the feeling to last. I can feel myself moving a little more slowly than usual, noticing more. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? Fiction, art of any kind—it’s supposed to open your eyes, give you a new way of seeing. When it works it’s incredible, the best kind of gift.