And then, as Joe and Davy’s night is coming to an end, something changes. Careful hints Doyle has dropped throughout his story that all this talk is really just a front, just a way of not looking at something else, are suddenly stitched together, and the whole performance has to be reinterpreted. The evening that’s been endured must now be read as a way of doing and saying anything to avoid embarking on the one thing that has to happen before the night is out. This is a beautifully handled and powerful reveal, and it means that, despite Love’s perverse repetitions, the book does eventually land some of its punches. The mundane in the beautiful, the beautiful in the mundane; the old friend you’ve drifted a thousand miles from but need tonight just as much as he needs you, because both of you knew each other back when life began. The rituals that fortified young men years ago, and must now be re-enacted to keep pain at bay for two men in late middle age. All this matters. Similar ideas are explored to devastating effect in John McGahern’s The Pornographer, without Love’s longeurs and flaws. But a book I wanted to throw across the room 50 pages from the end did, by the time I closed it, leave me sitting silently, thinking back over its story, and over losses of my own.
There are echoes of Beckett throughout, and you may even find yourself muttering , “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” Yet, as with Godot, it’s strangely exhilarating, and there are sentences that would surely have had Beckett giving a mournful smile of recognition, even approval. For example: “He lifted both shoulders and extended his arms. Like a half-hearted Jesus on a cross built for a smaller man.”
It takes courage for a novelist to demand you pay attention to bores. It takes rare talent to make this, first, acceptable, then weirdly enjoyable.
The narrative relies on Doyle’s characteristic banter – unattributed, sometimes comic, often lushly expletive. As Davy confides: “I loved speaking like a Dubliner. It felt like physical exercise.” Don’t expect linearity, though: this is a tale constantly interrupted by flashbacks, forever getting knocked off course by old tensions and fresh ambivalence. And still the rounds keep coming....The finale comes as a sobering surprise, opening wide a novel that has contrived to feel at once capacious and claustrophobic. After the guilt and envy stirred up by the booze comes a great generosity of feeling, a celebration of love in all its forms, not least between two friends old enough to know better.
Doyle goes to lengths to signpost the unreliability of the friends’ shared memories, the shakiness of Joe’s account of leaving his wife, the pair’s inability to articulate what they think. “The words are letting me down,” Joe sighs. The most engaging parts are often the straightforward, nostalgic segments when Davy thinks back to his past. He recalls meeting his wife, Faye, at a wedding and falling for her wildness; a breakdown after his kids left home; the weekends he and Joe would spend in their favourite Dublin pub trying “to live up, somehow, to the music we loved, the books we read”. It’s these fleeting anecdotes that stick with you.
Throughout, Doyle imbues the ordinary moment with a certain grace; moving exchanges with taxi drivers, a homeless couple sharing a paperback, a barman standing looking at his phone in the passage between the bar and the lounge. At the very least, anyone who is longing for the quiet comfort of “a clean well-lighted place” will find some consolation here; pints are placed under Guinness taps then on the towel to settle, “the tan darkening to black and the arrival of the collar”.
Red herring or literary device, the over-long dialogue on the Joe/Jessica romance allows Doyle to write about marriage, children, fathers and sons, indeed love in all its various form, and most importantly, the complexities of friendship. But the father/son heart of the story is weakened and the reader exhausted by what becomes a tedious fairy tale kind of love. Ultimately it’s Joe accompanying Davy to the hospice that cements this old friendship.
But perhaps Love’s very limitedness is its point. “It’s f-----’ boring Joe,” Davy tells his friend more than once, as he listens to him self-justify, clothing his infidelity in the tropical colours of love and destiny. But it’s also utterly familiar – and not just to anyone who’s been stuck with an old man at the end of the bar. We’ve all sat with a drink for a hand and a friend for a mirror, trying to make them understand what we did and why we did it. We all know the stories we tell bring us closer together, and keep us apart.
It can drag at times, but the slow build of digressive dialogue means that towards the end of the book, when Davy gets an unexpected text message, and the dam breaks, and we find out what love really means, the effect is devastating. “I’m makin’ it up as I go along,” says Joe. “I’m tryin’ to make sense of it.” Ah, you and me both, Joe, you and me both.
Not much about Love feels new. Doyle’s women — usually so well rounded — feel hastily sketched here. Davy’s Faye is something of a caricature of a lively, mouthy Irish lass. Joe and Davy’s dilemmas and sorrows are not distinctive enough. It’s no trouble to keep listening to their talk, to follow them around on their long Dublin night, but the reader might, in the end, find herself keeping an eye out for more interesting company.
Some of the best moments are the flashbacks to Davy’s unpredictable, in-your-face wife Faye. Through her sharp, astute opinions, we gain a deeper understanding of Davy’s sombre upbringing and the reasons he and Faye were desperate to get out of Dublin in the first place. The true depth of Joe and Davy’s loving friendship reveals itself in the final, tender, moving section set in a hospice.