Rory and Ita, Roddy Doyle's septuagenarian parents, are gifted raconteurs: possessed of considerable powers of memory, loquacious, mildly ironic, self-deprecating, humbly proud, patiently charming. They abundantly repaid this reader's attention, and not because as the parents of an important contemporary Irish novelist they give a privileged view of the environment in which their writer-son developed. Another, still secondary value of this book is that it can serve North-American readers as a sort of anti-McCourt (though for a true, as opposed to McCourt's Disneyfied, view of the Irish darkside¨which Rory & Ita does not pretend to offer¨readers should go to such novels as John McGahern's The Dark and Patrick McCabe's The Dead School). As anti-McCourt, Rory & Ita provides a quiet version of twentieth-century Irish life as experienced by a couple of hard-working upwardly-mobile middle-class Dubliners who saw the remarkable changes of their accelerating times through sensible, compassionate, and wry Irish eyes. It's something of a bonus that Rory and Ita occasionally engaged with the events that shaped modern Ireland, that their lives sometimes intersected the traces and trajectories of such luminaries as Michael Collins, Brendan Behan, and Eamon DeValera. But the greatest value of Rory & Ita is that it makes vicariously available the experiences of two fairly ordinary lives, experiences which amply entertained as I went forth to realize for the millionth time that there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
In alternating chapters, Doyle's parents tell their own life stories, with little editorializing from their famous son. I have read a few mistaken reviews of this book which would lead us to see it a tribute more to the kind of lives lived by Rory and Ita than to the parents themselves. Such unappreciative reviewers virtually say, "Who cares, really?" (the laziest judgement on any writing that doesn't excite one), or the reviewer writes that all Doyle did was transcribe the ramblings of his father and mother. But Rory & Ita is actually infused everywhere with Roddy the writer and Doyle the architectonic novelist. His invisible hand makes the speech of his parents into literary voices that captivate, structuring and shaping their stories in contrapuntal fashion, preserving the repetitions that let the telling maintain its oral character. All in all, Doyle's is both a splendid literary achievement and an unsentimentally moving tribute to the parents of a son whom we all might envy in his choice of father and mother. It's as if the writer-son, in unobtrusively recreating his parents so cherishingly, has partially redeemed the mundane debt of his birth.
Rory and Ita worked very hard, endured miscarriage and stillbirth, and raised five healthy children without hardly referring here to, and certainly never complaining about, the sacrifices entailed. They did without and made do with what they had. Through it all, they describe a life and time when families¨their family anyway¨thought nothing of building rooms in the back yard for members of the extended family; when neighbours were as dear as family; when community was such a fact of life¨as opposed to a buzz word¨that its rights and responsibilities and duties also don't merit special attention; when political engagement was a natural feature of mature citizenry. If you can be nostalgic for the life you never had, Rory & Ita will make you so. It may require a suspension of the modern craving for sensation before the voices and stories engage the contemporary reader, but patient readers who make the effort to accommodate these convincing characters will be rewarded indeed.
As we would expect from any Doyle, there are many comic highlights and throwaway lines worth keeping. Rory as a version of Yahoo tourist is stricken with the runs while vacationing in Russia and forced to use a nightmare of a fly-infested public toilet. Of another couple, Ita remarks: "When they met, he was a good-looking man; he had black curly hair and a full set of teeth. When I knew him he had neither." Every character is a character, complete with memorable nicknames such as "the Knight of the Shattered Arse." Rory, a prized professional printer, remembers a typo in an obituary for a Presbyterian minister who was "survived by three sisters and two brothels." And Ita reflects on the change that has come to dominate contemporary western culture: "Really, teenagers didn't exist; there was no such thing¨you were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, but never a teenager."
Two failings of the book are its refusal to caption the many photographs (though identities can be inferred from the surrounding text) and, more irritatingly, its overuse of expansive footnotes. The many distracting notes smack of self-indulgence, not on Rory's or Ita's part, but on Doyle's as editor (the only instances of editorial intrusiveness). Some of these notes are ridiculously unnecessary¨sometimes reading like the involved genealogical clarifications of the rambling old, which Rory and Ita definitely are not¨if forgivable still.
I was never convinced by the failed marriage that insinuates its corrosive way into Doyle's Booker-winning (1993), suggestively autobiographical novel, Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha. That event feels tagged on in a mistaken move to give the perfect coming-of-age fiction a profundity that it already had. Now I know why Doyle couldn't make the deteriorating Clarke marriage work fictionally. How could even a great writer blessed with parents such as Rory and Ita imagine a bad marriage? ˛
In a regrettable mix-up in the transmigration of souls, Gerald Lynch was born in Monaghan five years before Ita gave birth to Roddy.