This is the kind of man we meet when we open Roddy Doyle’s new title. Charlie is a “type”. He’s a Dubliner through and through. A decent aul’ skin. Pint drinker. A no-nonsense sort, who might walk into Insomnia café and order “a plain black coffee with no messing”. He’s also a father, a grandfather; mad about his family. He even gets a SpongeBob tattoo on his chest so his three-year-old grandson won’t have to; telling him he’s just looking after it for him. This is someone who’s aware of how ridiculous the world can be, but who nonetheless participates in the whole joke.
Irish Independent readers will be familiar with Charlie from his slot in the weekend magazine. Now a year’s worth of these columns is collected in one work. And whilst it is promoted as a novel, its episodic quality and occasional jarring repetition signposts this as a compendium of stories rather than a lineal novel proper…
It’s worth noting that this isn’t his first foray into this format. In 2011, he introduced Two Pints via Facebook. A series of imagined conversations between two men at a bar. Not unlike Charlie and his drinking buddy, they riffed on current events, always maintaining a gruff, detached ‘bloke-tone’.
Charlie Savage feels like another stab at this idea, but a better one. We get a more complete reading experience. Charlie and his fellow characters are fleshed out. A world is drawn. And the humour feels less cynical because of this.
There’s a knack to this character-sketch style writing, and Doyle for the most part has it. It depends on “on the money” observations and on-point humour. Writing like this is like performing stand-up: make ’em laugh and you can get away with anything.
Doyle knows how to work a crowd. His north-Dublinese is fluent; never mocking, never overstated. He describes a nativity play where his young daughter, playing Mary, arrives onstage and says “Look, Joseph [ . . .] we’re after having a baby boy.” You can hear it, if only faintly, that charming Dublin lilt. Doyle’s humour is subtle. He has an ear for things particular to Irish people that are particularly funny.
So, Doyle plays ball. He represents. Charlie’s drinking buddy has realised that inside he’s been a woman all along (Savage refers to him as the Secret Woman – without a hint of mockery, only fondness). His son might be gay . . . or bisexual, intersexual, pansexual, polysexual (he runs out of sexuals before ever reaching “heterosexual”, which his son turns out to be). In order to represent the modern world, you must use modern-day terminology and attitudes.
Of course, he’s treading a fine line here. The ‘over-woke’ (Google it if you need) world is partly what he’s mocking – why would a three-year-old want a tattoo, for God’s sake? – and partly what he’s welcoming: Charlie gets the tattoo instead.
It’s a difficult balance and at times depth is lost in its pursuit – his daughter’s attempt to turn him into a social media influencer (by podcasting him shouting at the telly) flounders and finally peters out, seeming a little too forced. But it’s style that bolsters the piece.
More than comedy or insight, this work has tenderness. Charlie genuinely loves his family and his wife – even if he struggles to remember which children have which grandchildren, “The house, of course, is full of grandkids. I'm sure they're mine but I don't recognise half of them. But they must know who I am because they keep throwing themselves on top of me every time I shut my eyes.” It does more than make us laugh, it warms our hearts somewhat.
At the end of the day, like a pleasant afternoon in a Dublin Bar, sipping Guinness and putting the world to rights with an amiable local, it’s enjoyable but by closing time I’m ready to move on..
Next up is the Isle of Man (don’t forget the UK explained video I posted earlier). This is a self-governing British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Whilst the Queen is Head of State (technically the Lord of Mann), it has its own President and parliament (the High Court of Tynwald) and is not part of the UK.
The Manx population is just over 80,000 and, accordingly, my research into relevant novels was a frugal one, though I finally found an interesting-sounding one set on the Isle called Safe House, by Chris Ewan.
I get a taxi from the city centre to the Dublin port for €13 and am just in time for the 10.45am ferry to Douglas (capital of the Isle of Man). I embark as a foot passenger and 3 hours later and €26 poorer I arrive in Douglas, en route to the winding small-town roads that grace the annual TT motorbike races and a remote country house that may not be all it seems…