It’s been a while since I had so much fun reading words on a page (Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind springs to mind). I literally had to put this book down a few times while I bent over double laughing and reached for a tissue to mop up the tears. Humour is a difficult act to pull off effectively in any medium, but Roddy Doyle does a marvellous job in this collection of weekly columns for the Irish Independent, written by his middle-aged, salt-of-the-earth, fictional Dubliner, Charlie Savage.
There are lots of things I love about the character of Charlie Savage: His passion for football, his awareness of his shortcomings and acceptance he can do nothing about them, his unwavering deference to his stalwart wife, his unapologetic maleness (in the best sense of the word), to name but a few. But what I like most about him as a character is the way he puts today’s world into perspective. He’s mostly confused by the what occupies his children and grandchildren but because he loves them so much, he respects them and does his best to go along with them. He never pretends to get their taste in fashion, their health fads or technologies when he doesn’t, but he doesn’t mock them either. Which is what makes his internal commentary (juxtaposed with his interactions) so hilarious.
Aside from making you laugh, though, Charlie Savage does what all great fictional characters do: He imparts a certain degree of wisdom, or at the very least philosophical enquiry, while not hitting you over the head with it. Reading Charlie Savage is actually a bit like perusing Ecclesiastics or the ancient Stoics while sipping Guinness, munching cheese & onion crisps and keeping one eye on Match of the Day. Each chapter is pregnant with a sense that there’s really only so much you can understand – much less control – and that it’s a wise person who acknowledges this and then enjoys to the full whatever fleeting pleasures life throws their way.
Charlie is completely open and frank about his feelings, such as they are (e.g., the pervasive sadness he experiences during the summer months when there is no football) it’s just that these feelings have little in common with the culture he finds himself increasingly engulfed in. Ecological awareness, exercise regimens, gender fluidity; he acknowledges them all as important and is willing to behave accordingly if his family or friends asks him to, but doesn’t feel the requisite emotions about them. He's mostly thinking about when he can have his next pint. Charlie’s constant attempts to do and say what the people he loves want him to, while often not having a clue what they’re talking about, creates deliciously irreverent comedy.
Charlie may be guilty of many things (he’s an Irish Catholic, after all) but he’s not guilty of being neurotic or overthinking things. His priorities are clear: His family, the pub, football. He acknowledges the way things are and is able to laugh about his own suffering. Here’s a little excerpt in which Charlie muses about the increasing frequency with which men of his age have to pee:
It’s just as well all the great stories are about young people with young bladders. Can you imagine what the end of Casablanca would have been like if Humphrey Bogart had been twenty years older? ‘If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not – hang on love, I’ll be back in a minute.’ Or if Jesus had been sixty-three not thirty-three. Instead of ‘Jesus falls the second time’, it would have been ‘Jesus has to go to the jacks the fourth time.’ Christianity would never have taken off.
This is undoubtedly a book that people who take themselves and their opinions over-seriously will have a hard time enjoying. But hey, who’s after asking them, but?
Get your copy of Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle here or at your local bookstore.