Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
A very short story by Stephen Crane, “A Dark Brown Dog,” is set, like many other Crane works of the early 1890’s, in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. The story’s plot is minimal. A dog, small and stray but decidedly, even desperately friendly, attaches itself to a young boy, who responds to the dog’s overtures alternately with affection and, because he is a child of the slums, aggression. Reluctantly, almost grudgingly, though perhaps also gratefully, the boy allows the dog to follow him home. Some time later the boy’s father arrives drunk, seizes the dog, and whirls it over his head a few times before tossing it out the window. With characteristic irony, Crane then records the dog’s fatal descent to the roof of a shed some floors below, as seen by a number of startled witnesses. Crane, at times too clever for his own good, keeps one irony in reserve, revealing only at the very end just how small this young boy is:
so small that he must descend the stairs backwards.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, 1993 winner of Great Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Booker, reads like a much expanded and less ironically detached version of Crane’s highly compressed and overly pat short story. It is set not in New York but in the fictional Barrytown, a working- class area in Northern Dublin. The author, Roddy Doyle, knows Barrytown well, having grown up in Dublin and having taught for fourteen years in an area like Barrytown, the setting of his three previous novels. The Barrytown of Paddy Clarke is the same as the Barrytown of those earlier novels, but it is also different in one most important way. The Barrytown of The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991) is a world of late adolescence and early adulthood, but the Barrytown of Paddy Clarke is that same world seen now through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy.
In writing Paddy Clarke Doyle clearly runs a number of risks, not least departing from a pattern that had yielded not only three exceptionally good novels but also two highly acclaimed films-The Commitments (1991) and The Snapper (1993). A second risk was that in writing from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, Doyle would be seen as working in the shadow and under the influence of that earlier and more famous Dubliner, James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) incorporates in its opening sections the immature consciousness of its protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Finally, in writing an entire novel from the point of view of so immature a protagonist, Doyle, heretofore essentially and brilliantly a comic writer, ran the risk of writing an Irish working-class version of Sue Townsend’s wonderfully entertaining The Adrian Mole Diaries (1985). The risks were formidable but, in light of the final achievement, well worth taking. As Hilary Mantel points out in the December 3, 1993, issue of The Times Literary Supplement, “What Roddy Doyle does in Paddy Clarke Ha,” that is, finding “a voice for the inarticulate,” is almost impossibly difficult. Mantel praises Doyle for his sureness, his perfect control over his material.
In order to reflect Paddy’s ten-year-old mind, Doyle adopts a narrative syntax that eschews causality and prizes instead immediacy and a sense of spatiotemporal equivalence that gives the novel an unstudied, improvisational air. From the seeming jumble of recorded events, a number of general themes, or concerns, begin to emerge. One is a fierce yet strangely tenuous allegiance to the group: being Catholic rather than “proddy”; living in one of the fifty-four Barrytown houses rather than in one of the newly constructed Corporation houses or in another area altogether, such as Bayside; coming from an intact family, particularly one in which the mother does not have to work; belonging to the gang that plays games together, builds and defends its huts, and causes mischief in Barrytown and something more outside it. At home there is “my da,” “my ma,” a younger brother nicknamed Sinbad, and two younger sisters who by virtue of their age and sex do not function in Paddy’s world at all. There is also a phonograph for Da’s Hank Williams records, a television for watching the news and assorted American television shows, a chair in which Da can read, or pretend to read, the newspaper or Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948).
Paddy observes his world-at school, at home, and in the world in between of...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)