Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. started off as a supporting character in The Commitments, moved up to co-star in The Snapper, and finally moves to the forefront in The Van, which is more about him than the other two were about any one person. Which isn't to say that Jimmy, Jr., Sharon, Veronica, Darren and the twins aren't here, they're just in the background -- as are most of Jimmy, Sr.'s friends (actually, I think Jr.'s in this far more than he was The Snapper).
Not only is the focus more narrow, the final installment in the trilogy is different in other ways -- it's almost 100 pages longer (depending on the printing) than The Snapper which was about 50 pages longer than The Commitments. Which gives Doyle more space to do things he hadn't really before. It's still primarily told through heavily stylized In the first 90 pages, I estimated I'd read more (significantly more) narration than I did in the first two volumes of the trilogy.
It's not been clear before what Jimmy did for a living, but whatever it was, it was pretty clear the bills were barely paid. They stretched what they had pretty far, but they seemed to manage. Somewhere along the line, pretty sure it was post-Snapper, but I'm not sure, Jimmy lost his job. Unemployment isn't setting well with him -- he can't support his family, he's bored, he can't even go down to the pub to have a few pints with his friends.
Jimmy's trying to grow -- he's reading the classics. Thinking of taking some classes. But it's not enough. At some point his friend, Bimbo, also gets laid off. The two spend a lot of time together -- having a companion in his unemployment makes the whole thing tolerable for Jimmy -- almost like summer vacation from school. Bimbo isn't quite as accepting of this new reality -- he almost applies to work at McDonald's, but is shamed out of it by Jimmy. Bimbo's wife is even less satisfied with his job status. Which leads to a reckless move on Bimbo's part -- reckless, yet maybe inspired -- he uses some of his last dollars on a Chip Van (minus an engine). In the midst of the U.S.' current Food Truck craze, this might not seem so risky, but in the early 90s? (then again, what do I know of early 90's Dublin, other than what I've picked up from Doyle's novels and the movies based on them?)
They've just a few weeks until the World Cup games start when they hope they can cash in on the post-game crowds. So Jimmy and Bimbo rush to clean the, learn to cook, design a menu, etc. And now you've got yourself a plot -- can these two make a go of this? Can they remain friends and co-workers? Will they start a grease fire that destroys the whole of Barrytown?
There was, it seemed to me, a maturing of Jimmy that started back in The Snapper. Not that he wasn't a good father before, but he kicked it into a higher gear with Sharon during her pregnancy. Here, that seems to manifest itself in a paternal pride -- Junior's having some sort of success out there, is getting married; his other son, Darren, is doing very well in school (better than anyone else in the family, that's sure). Part of Jimmy's reaction to it is finding pleasure in someone else's success for what it means to them. I'm not convinced that the Jimmy of The Commitments or the first part of The Snapper could do that.
That's not to say that he's Man of the Year material or anything. There are some real (human) flaws to him. He's petty, he's jealous, he's proud -- there's some sort of mid-life crisis that he's got a half-hearted interest in involving Other Women. As in all good fiction, these just make him someone you can like, someone you can relate to, someone you can get annoyed with -- even pity.
There's some great, great stuff about sports fans here -- national pride around The World Cup, the joy in sports, the very real camaraderie that can exist for a few moments around a shared experience. That's not my typical milieu, but I've tasted it a time or two -- and I can't imagine many capture it better than Doyle did here. Even if I didn't like the rest of the book, I think that part would've been worth it.
In the end, this is Doyle's best work (to date), not the most enjoyable, but the best. It's impossible after reading this, to ignore Jimmy, Sr.'s brief appearances in The Commitments, to not pull for him earlier than you should in The Snapper, and really to forget him. Just a great character in a world you really don't want to leave.