- Love by Roddy Doyle
- Jonathan Cape
Yet rather incredibly, Love is altogether spellbinding, because what the two former friends are actually after in celebrating Dave’s temporary return from England are the secrets in each other’s hearts, and even the meaning of human love – through all its stages and travails.
Doyle is almost certainly having a go at Plato’s Symposium, that marvellously imaginative, probing and hilarious series of banquet speeches – encomiums — the ancient philosopher concocted to explore the Ideal of transcendent love through one long wine-soaked night back in 385 B.C. In Love, Doyle wildly shifts the scene forward and gradually lets on that his almost average Joe might be holding onto something inscrutable and timeless – in other words, the Answer.
But just try to get it out of him.
The whole book is audacious, richly layered and often comic, but ultimately deeply moving.
Davy and Joe – one a bored banker and the other an exhausted teacher – are not normally big drinkers anymore, mind you. But on this night, as a certain spirit takes hold, they become Aristophanes and Socrates, back together at last on Dublin’s high stool. Note that the book is also an ode to Ireland’s pubs and the way male conversation used to flow therein, showing how a pair of unremarkable-looking guys under the influence – “guys,” because this is a book about males — can become temporary visionaries if the stars are right.
It’s been years since Davy and Joe last met, so now their talk wings back to their coming of age together in one of Dublin’s great bars – Grogan’s perhaps. Therein lay their initiation into the male art of here-you-see-it and now-you-don’t talking when it comes to matters of the heart. The two then were insecure working-class lads finishing college and savouring the wisdom of an older bartender named George, who showed them how quick bursts of ideas followed by artful silence and reverie could gain the approval of the most seasoned regulars of that nook. Those early sessions with George personified that stage of half-shaped young men falling under the guidance of knowing elders – Platonic Love.
Around Pint Three, the talk turns to a mysterious young female with a viola case who would sidle into the bar forty years earlier surrounded by an impenetrable circle of swell friends. Jessica. She was a walking dream of soft curves and gentle voice and deep refinement – “One shade the more, one ray the less” as that other George said — and the embodiment of Unattainable Love, as Davy recalls. To his astonishment, he instantly senses that his old buddy Joe, his once inseparable friend, is flinching.
Not that Davy is putting all his cards on the table either, since he’s very slow to reveal the reason he is in town – namely, to recapture some glimpse of the shattered love of an only son for his father as he drifts toward death. The venue shifts to central Dublin as they down more pints and prepare to refind George, and perhaps the lingering echoes of their youth. In porter veritas. Davy hints at his growing boredom with his once insatiable wife – the brash and funny Trish, and the embodiment of Erotic Love. But maybe the problem is his.
The drink flows and Davy is getting an instinct that his old pal has topped him in some very deep way – that he has found Unattainable Love. Or rather stolen it. He probes, Joe ducks and bobs. Gradually Joe comes out with the fact that after all these years he had run into Jessica and began having lunches.
“And?” Davy nearly pants.
Joe isn’t saying a lot. “She was attractive, but you know… different.” “Oh?” That’s how the deepest male conversations often go, one wary step at a time, not an outpouring but a succession of labyrinth chess moves. Only several pints later does it all become clear. Happily married Joe was blown away. It got where he and Jessica were completing each other’s sentences and even joyously remembering details of each other’s stories that were never told.
Over and again, Davy wants to know about the sex. Joe wants to speak of the mystery of completion (as in the Symposium). But Davy cannot stop himself. Finally, Joe spells it out. It was not ever that, and never will it be, even now when he has left his wife. This love is a different thing.
A phone call interrupts everything. Davy’s father is at his end in his care home out by Howth – hurry! The pints are shoved away and Joe insists on staying by his friend’s side. The taximan is almost an angel of kindness. The extended scene at the hospice is heart breaking, but it too is full of love, from the gentle ministrations of the nurses and thoughts that flow from Davy to his dying father at last.
It is quite beautiful, and not an ounce overworked. Move over Socrates and watch an Irish master of dialogue at work.