Two Pints – Roddy Doyle

5 December 2012
How can I write about this book? Is it a novel? Does it matter?

No, it doesn’t matter. It was written in the form of occasional entries on a Facebook page, the modern way to keep a diary. But it isn’t a Facebook conversation between our two men, because they aren’t of the generation that communicates that way. Writing on Facebook is what kept it topical as Doyle wrote it, letting his his characters respond to current news. Or whatever else he felt like writing about that day: there’s one surreal moment when it’s the Sydney Opera House, because Doyle happens to be in a hotel room overlooking it that day. It reminded me – I’m sure it reminds a lot of Brits of my generation – of the comic dialogues between the working class personas adopted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the 1960s.

Is there more to it than comedy? It’s hugely funny – there’s at least one joke in each session, and often the dismissive ‘Fuck off’ that contains so much subtext it made me laugh out loud – but does that mean that it’s no more than an update of those Pete’n’Dud sketches? Again, does it matter?

Probably not. There’s usually (how usually?) something serious going on that one of the men opens a conversation with. We don’t know the names of either of them, but it always seems to be the same man who starts up the conversational thread, and slowly the workings of a relationship emerge. I’ll come back to that. The main point, I think, is that it gives Doyle the chance to meditate on current events, celebrity culture and, like any other novelist of a certain age, death. Ok.

And as soon as I wrote that I realised that these really are Facebook entries. Through these two men, who are – again like Pete’n’Dud – less educated than the writer, Doyle can hold up for scrutiny any idea that has occurred to him that day. His working class men are ruthless when it comes to puncturing any sign of pretentiousness – if the one who opens the conversations goes an inch too far he gets an instant ‘Fuck off’ – so he has created the perfect medium for himself. He can be satirical about the latest state visit to Ireland – Barack Obama or the Queen – but hint at why those visits might actually have a significance beyond the razzmatazz. Or not.

As for the deaths…. These men are old enough to be grandparents, so might be a few years older than Doyle. But he is old enough – and I should know – to notice not only the celebrity deaths like that of Amy Winehouse, but of people who seem to have been around forever. The conversations about death are as comic as any others, but they are like a comedy memento mori, like the Mexican death carnivals with their parades of dancers and garish skull masks.

I mentioned the relationship. They know each other, but only as drinkers in the same pub. If either of them misses a few sessions, the other only finds out why the next time he’s in the pub. The one who starts the conversations is careful about the way he floats an idea, cautious about the mockery it might bring down on his head. This is highly recognisable in conversations between men. In my experience – and I currently work alongside working class men – it’s more blatant among working men than among politer, more educated men. But don’t be fooled. In a book that might seem a million miles from this one (ok, about 200 miles), Kate Fox’s Watching the English, the ‘Come off it’ rule is highly prominent. If you want to go out on a limb conversationally there are a lot of people – or, at least, it always feels as though there are – who are ready to shoot you down.

It leads to a kind of double-think. You hedge your bets in conversations, floating an idea by way of an innocent-sounding question. Or you mock it as you say it. Or you get ready with your reply to the mockery you expect to come…. All of which we see in Two Pints. It doesn’t make it exactly realistic – I’ll come back to that as well – but it makes it funny. And I think of Roddy Doyle, floating his ideas on his Facebook page, a further step back than usual. This isn’t me, he can let himself say, these are just blokes I’ve made up. Clever.

Just to make sure we know that this is only a joke, he has the rather unnecessary Damien, the grandson. The name says it all (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about): from small beginnings – he throws his hamster (or gerbil or whatever) into the deep-fat fryer of the local chip-shop – he goes through a hyena, a polar bear and, eventually, a tiger cub he seems to have skinned to make a waistcoat. And the chip-shop owner is one of several with comedy names – his is Gaddafi – that lead to inevitable confusions.

But I was writing about the relationship. All we have to go on is what they say, but Doyle is a playwright and scriptwriter as well as a novelist, so he’s used to this. As I’ve said, only one of the men seems to start off the conversational threads. But it doesn’t make him the dominant one. The other has strategies for keeping up his end, through the kind of mockery I’ve mentioned and through a deft use of the ‘Fuck off’ technique. And is he the one – it doesn’t really matter either way, I know that – who makes a mocking threat at the end of one session because the other didn’t mock his wife as he’d just mocked the other’s? (Try to keep up.) There are ways to hold your own, as we know in these situations.

But I really see them as Roddy Doyle’s alter-egos. He’s taking ideas out for an airing, doodling around them with a bit of social comedy and a few satirical riffs on the ridiculousness of the news media – I haven’t really touched on that, but it’s on nearly every page – and he’s having a laugh. Best thing to do.

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