The exhilarating dangers of Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha mature in Doyle's latest bookby Josie Mitchell / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
For Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, childhood is as dangerous as it is exhilarating. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha—his most celebrated novel, which won the 1993 Booker Prize—children mess around with lighter fluid, charge down empty sewage pipes and get knocked about by teachers. Doyle’s latest novel, Smile, is a bleaker affair, and his most extreme exploration to date of the tension between schoolboy nostalgia and suppressed trauma.
We encounter Victor Forde nursing a pint and contemplating his life’s ruin: newly separated from his wife, he’s back in his old Dublin neighbourhood at the age of 54, dragging himself to the pub each night, as if “going to the gym or mass.” Victor hopes to reground himself with chat about football and golf, but a run-in with an old school friend triggers ambivalent memories of his years being taught by the Christian Brothers.
There are two threads of reminiscence in this book, and they don’t quite come together. Victor’s stunted radio career and aspirational relationship with celebrity chef Rachel Carey; and the physical and sexual abuse he received from his teachers as a child. Doyle is nuanced in his apportioning of sympathy—in one memorable scene an elderly Brother sits in on the school rehearsal of his own funeral.
It was George Orwell who observed that boys think “misfortune is disgraceful and must be concealed at all cost.” For Doyle this reticence traps men in the shell of their own masculinity. While he has shown that the most simple, even crass, conversations can convey exquisite emotion, in Smile Doyle underlines the isolating effect of macho small talk. What happens if men like Victor are unable to face their suffering, when all they can talk about is Sky Sports?
An abrupt finale tries to answer this question. But in trying to unite Victor’s two worlds, Doyle draws attention to his own pyrotechnics and away from this otherwise sensitive story: the psychological portrait would be richer without the hand-grenade ending.
Smile by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99