Off the Shelf: The Van

The VanThe Van by Roddy Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The third (final?) entry of the Barrytown series (are we counting The Guts now?) follows Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. in Dublin in the early ’90s. He’s unemployed & filling his time while on the dole: babysitting his grand-daughter, spending a ton of time at the library, & golfing. To an outsider, that might sound like a easy time, but in truth, Jimmy is adrift, ashamed of the fact his family relies on welfare & concerned that they are coming apart as each Rabbitte tries to better their circumstances. When Jimmy’s friend Bimbo also loses his job & plans to buy a food truck, Jimmy helps out, even if the effort is just to have something to do. But once they get the business up & running, Jimmy discovers that the new influx of money will put a strain on his friendship.

The Van gives readers of the Barrytown series an interesting contrasting view of Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. compared to the previous book The Snapper. Snapper showed us a father who was downright maternal–Jimmy Sr. was still a little aimless, but his daughter Sharon’s pregnancy had inspired him to pull the family together. There are still flashes of Jimmy’s emotional depth in The Van but mostly he is unmoored by middle age & he wants certain things so badly that he gets downright creepy by the end of the book. This attitude is mostly understandable: Jimmy’s wife has gone back to school, his kids are all over the place & seemingly have no need for him, the neighborhood is starting to gentrify & if everyone is looking out for themselves, why can’t he?

As a reader who has loved the Rabbitte family’s barely contained chaos, the thing that saddened me the most was exactly how success, greed & midlife desperation changed Jimmy. His jovial & generally harmless interest in other women becomes a sleazy power trip by the end of the book & his friendship with Bimbo, which had a certain give-and-take, escalates into a game of chicken to see who can get the last & best insult in. The change in character made sense but I was pretty disappointed by the end of the book.

Van is the longest of the three Barrytown books so far & there is a lot of atmospheric setup before getting to the crux of the story. I wonder if some of this could have been edited down–sections about the Rabbittes’ home life & how Barrytown in general is changing are just long enough for reader to start to wonder what the point is. Also, Van is sort of a downer to end the series on. In the other two novels, things fell apart spectacularly but there were always hints that the characters would get back up & try something else. I don’t doubt that Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. will get back up, but since his personal world has changed beyond recognition, I don’t have a lot of hope that he’ll find his way again.

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