Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle

First Written for Shiny New Books

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One of the kids wants a tattoo.

-He’s only three, I tell the wife.

-I’m aware of that, she tells me back. -But he still wants one.

-He can’t even say ‘tattoo’, I tell her.

-I know, she says. -It’s sweet.

Charlie Savage is not a fan of tattoos. He is utterly bewildered when his grandson decides he wants one for Christmas. What sort of Christmas present is that? However, the reader quickly learns what sort of person, what sort of family man Charlie is. He is very much the opposite of his surname. What if he gets the tattoo instead? And then the grandson can see it and visit it whenever he wants. Charlie will even go around at night so he can say goodnight to it? It is with this flash of brilliance, that Charlie ends up having Spongebob Square Pants tattoo’d on his chest. Even though he hates tattoos.

Doyle must by now be a national treasure. He is one of Ireland’s most loved writers ever since The Commitments. With the freedom to write what he pleases it is perhaps a little surprising, that he has decided to start writing a weekly column for a national newspaper. Unlike most however, he has eschewed the typical opinion pieces and gone instead for creating a new character, and with him a new family. 2017 began with Charlie Savage’s introduction to the Irish public in the pages of the Independent. How I missed this I don’t know. But fortunately, a book has been issued, bringing together 52 weeks worth of columns into one collection. As each instalment follows on from the other Charlie Savage can squeeze into the category of novel or it can be read one chapter at a time. With each instalment readers get to peek inside the head of Charlie, and in a way, he is a barometer for what is going on in the wider world.

In one of the collection’s few more serious moments, Charlie contemplates the world he is leaving for his grandchildren.

But the news – terrorist attacks, famines, disasters, intolerance – it’s relentlessly dreadful. Even the good murder stories have become too gruesome for me. Our parents left the world in reasonably good shape but I’ve a horrible feeling we’ll be leaving it in rag order.

Unfortunately, he is probably right. However, this is offset when we learn that he has also found a positive to Trump being President of the USA. He has found the secret. Deny everything and front it out. Even if no one else believes you just keep saying it is fake news until it becomes something resembling a truth. One gets the feeling that either he or his wife could find the silver lining in the black clouds of a thunderstorm. Charlie’s wife has been searching for something to do. Book clubs and baby sitting just aren’t enough. One night in bed she discusses this with Charlie:

-Old age can fuck right off. Am I right?

-Bang on

Shortly afterwards, she embarks on her own musical adventure with a fury and energy that makes Charlie’s heart fill with pride. Even from the short quotes one can see the Dublin vernacular and humour that Doyle is famous for embracing, that makes the comedy, even in the dark, spring from the page.

What gobshite decided that serving tea in a glass was a good idea? I’m not sure if there are any references to tea in the Bible but I’m betting that Jesus and the lads had theirs in mugs. And his holy mother – with a name like Mary she definitely drank hers from a cup and she went down to the Irish shop in Nazareth for the milk. And a packet of Tayto for Joseph – salt and vinegar.

The highlight of the collection is the way in which Charlie’s love for his family seeps through the pages and into the reader. The prose is at its most potent when Charlie talks about his loved ones (although to be clear, match of the day comes a close second). The way Charlie’s love shows for his family – even when he is bewildered, exasperated and hoping for a pint – make Charlie Savage more than a novelty and add a depth and resonance that warms the reader.

 I feel like an animal and I know I’d do anything to protect them. I’d bite, I’d maim and I’d kill – I’d even miss Match of the Day for the kids and grandkids. I think of  them and I know I have a heart, because I can feel it pumping, keeping me alive for them.

There is a real tenderness at the heart of this collection. It was this that made me recommend Charlie Savage to several others. It’s not easy to find a laugh out loud book that also makes one feel content, making this a rare gem. Reading Charlie Savage felt a little like walking hand in hand with him along Dollymount Strand in the autumn breeze.

Roddy Doyle, Charlie Savage, (Jonathan Cape, 2019). 978-178733118, 208pp., hardback.