Rory & Ita, by Roddy Doyle. Viking. 352 pages. $23.95.
From the promotional material supporting Roddy Doyle's newest book, one learns that this author of six exhilarating novels and two plays is, in the words of his publicist, "currently working on a follow-up novel to A Star Called Henry, a volume collecting various stories, published and unpublished, and some books for children."
Normally that wouldn't matter much -- an author's hyper-productivity should be nothing but his own business -- but in the case of Rory & Ita, I couldn't get the coming lineup out of my head. I could not, in other words, stop wondering if the conceit of this book was born of distraction and haste, or whether it reflected, even heralded, the current vogue in memoir.
The question at hand is, do transcripts count as memoir? Is it enough to merely record one's parents as they recall the past, type up their words, insert appropriate quote marks, and set their recollections down in alternating chronological chapters, adding only the skimpiest of transitional sentences when logic mandates? Is not memoir defined as the shaping of the past so that the past might have some meaning? Do we not expect -- deserve -- to meet the author himself in memoir, to hear, at the very least, the questions he asked to prompt his parents' memories, if not his reactions to the stories he's been told? What is Doyle's purpose here?
He tells us in a half-page preface. "I wanted to ask questions before it was too late," he writes. "And they wanted to answer them. This book is about my parents, about the people they were before they became parents." We must trust that their lives will be emblematic of something; Doyle himself has no desire to give us clues.
So we open and we start reading and soon we understand that this is mere documentary and very little more. That for whatever reasons he settled on, Doyle seeks to remain invisible throughout the course of this book. There is no plot here, no tension, and no theme to hook the reader. These are the facts of two lives, pure and simple.
Lucky for us that Rory and Ita are such likable folk. Lucky that they don't whine about hard times, and that they remember the smells of things (lavender), or the cost of the new clothes they wore ("I paid 10 pounds for a handmade suit in Donegal tweed; that was cash money, almost two weeks' wages") or the smartness of her hat on wedding day ("It was like straw, but stronger than straw. It was beautiful; she made it perfectly." Rory and Ita are two good Irish people, the sort of rare, dignified souls one always hopes will move in next door or take up the mantle of godparent.
Rory & Ita is a confounding book, in many ways, but Rory and Ita are never confounding people. They are smart in the way we like our friends to be smart. They are modest by any living standard. Those interested in understanding how Irish fortunes rose and fell over the 20th century will enjoy spending time in Rory and Ita's company. There things will glimmer and appeal and sometimes seduce, and perhaps that is enough for now.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three memoirs. Her reviews, essays and profiles appear in The New York Times, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia magazine, Book magazine, Salon.com and elsewhere.