Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1958. For fourteen years he was a teacher of English and Geography at Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack, in north Dublin, an area of the city he has used as the setting for many of his novels. The first three of theseThe Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van—make up The Barrytown Trilogy, a series that follows the working-class Rabbitte family over a period of several years. The Van was a finalist for the 1991 Booker Prize, awarded to the outstanding novel published in Great Britain each year. Doyle cowrote the screenplay for the film version of The Commitments and also adapted the other two novels for the screen. His fourth novel, Paddy Clarke, ha-ha-ha, won the 1993 Booker Prize and was an international best-seller, as were The Woman Who Walked into Doors and A Star Called Henry. Doyle’s plays for the stage Brownbread and War both enjoyed successful runs in Dublin. He also wrote the four-part television series Family for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments, follows a working-class band’s struggle to bring soul music to Dublin. The origins of the band, its rise to brief popularity in northside Dublin dancehalls and clubs, and its eventual breakup are chronicled by the band’s self-styled agent and promoter, Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. Critics and reviewers praised Doyle’s unsentimental treatment of his characters as well as the realistic dialogue and the gritty humor of the book. In The Snapper, the focus is Jimmy’s sister Sharon, whose pregnancy disrupts not only the family but the neighborhood as a whole, because she refuses to name the child’s father. Much of the comedy here stems from the antics of Jimmy, Sr., who begins the story as the outraged, scandalized patriarch but gradually begins to share the pains and pleasures of Sharon’s pregnancy, monitoring her prenatal diet, serving as her Lamaze partner, and fending off the nosey and the disapproving. Jimmy, Sr., is in turn the protagonist of The Van. His layoff from his job prompts him to buy and refurbish a dilapidated fish-and-chip van, which he and his pal Bimbo maneuver through the Dublin neighborhoods, offering their cheap wares to the unwary and trying to steer clear of the health inspectors.
Doyle’s fourth novel, Paddy Clarke, ha-ha-ha, marked something of a departure for the author, as the story is told by ten-year-old Paddy, a point of view with humor but allowing less of the wild comedy found in The Barrytown Trilogy. Critics found a deeper seriousness than in Doyle’s earlier efforts, employing such terms as “compelling,” “haunting,” and “heartbreaking” to describe Paddy’s coming-of-age narrative.
The Woman Who Walked into Doors is even darker, told by an abused and alcoholic woman who fights to reclaim her dignity. The combined toughness and vulnerability of the heroine, Paula Spencer, makes her one of the most authentic of Ireland’s fictional characters. For Doyle, the achievement confirmed his standing as the leading Irish novelist of his generation. Writing in The Boston Book Review, Elizabeth Berg called The Woman Who Walked into Doors an accurate and sensitive treatment, “an extraordinary novel,” while a reviewer for The Washington Post Book World added that it was “a tour de force of literary ventriloquism.”
In A Star Called Henry, Doyle dramatizes Irish history of the early twentieth century, including the Rebellion of 1916 and the Irish civil war. A picaresque, episodic story, Henry’s narrative is a raucous, irreverent depiction of figures and events long romanticized in Ireland, and though the book was another international best-seller for Doyle, he was criticized in some circles for his gritty demythologizing of such a key episode in his nation’s struggle for independence.
As one of the most popular contemporary Irish writers, Roddy Doyle has risen above criticism of his early novels, which some reviewers maintained were little more than thinly disguised...
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