Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1402
One of Roddy Doyle’s greatest attributes as a writer is his ear for voice and dialogue, and his first five novels in particular display this gift to excellent effect. With minimal third-person narration, Doyle uses realistic dialogue—such as profanities and regional dialect—to achieve vivid characterization. It is not surprising that...
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- Critical Essays
One of Roddy Doyle’s greatest attributes as a writer is his ear for voice and dialogue, and his first five novels in particular display this gift to excellent effect. With minimal third-person narration, Doyle uses realistic dialogue—such as profanities and regional dialect—to achieve vivid characterization. It is not surprising that several of his novels have been adapted effectively for film, since his dialogue-heavy expository technique is essentially dramatic, or cinematic.
Some commentators, however, claim that Doyle’s emphasis on dialogue detracts from the novels’ plots. Character takes precedence in these novels over author, narrator, and plot. Considered chronologically, Doyle’s novels demonstrate an increasingly complex interaction between dialogue and narration. Because his characters do most of their speaking for themselves, there is little evidence of an authoritative, controlling consciousness in his novels. This technique empowers Doyle’s characters even as it deprives readers of a comforting narrative guide; whether Doyle is using first-person or third-person narration, there is no concrete, objective perspective with which to compare and measure the perspective of the protagonist.
Doyle’s dialogue has attracted much commentary because his characters belong to an economic and social class underrepresented in literature. Prior to Doyle’s Barrytown novels, the contemporary, urban, working class of Dublin was an uncommon subject in the Irish novel.
While several of Doyle’s novels are notable for their treatment of contemporary Dublin, the past plays a vital role throughout his works. In The Commitments, the young protagonist forms a band that plays soul music from the 1960’s, hearkening back to an earlier, perhaps more innocent time. Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha is set in 1968, and young Paddy and his father reflect both on nationalism in Irish history as well as on more contemporary events. The historical novels that comprise the Last Roundup series foreground Doyle’s preoccupation with early twentieth century Ireland and with American culture.
The Barrytown trilogy
Doyle’s interest in the frank exploration of family dynamics is evident in the three novels that make up the Barrytown trilogy. (The three novels were later published in a single volume under the same title.) While the notion of family values is by no means idealized in these novels, Doyle focuses on the large, resilient Rabbitte family, a family of survivors.
These novels display narrative immediacy because of their emphasis on dialogue and a near absence of intrusive narration. This immediacy is intensified by the pervasive contemporary slang and profanity in the dialogue. In The Commitments, young Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., attempts to bring soul music back to Dublin by bringing together an array of talented musicians (most of them young) and then rehearsing them. He then has to market them as a rhythm-and-blues (R & B) band called the Commitments, to a skeptical public. The trumpet player, an older man who claims friendship with the African American R & B musician Wilson Pickett, is the band’s most direct connection to the tradition they are trying to revive. Jimmy understands that the appeal of this genre is not nostalgia, but rather its association with sex and an affinity he perceives between African American culture and the urban, Irish working class. Jimmy’s enthusiasm and entrepreneurial skills are impressive but are ultimately not equal to the self-destructive forces that pull the band apart on the eve of its success.
While the Rabbitte family remains in the background through most of The Commitments, the family is the focus of The Snapper. The book’s title refers to Dublin slang for an infant, and the novel centers on the unwanted pregnancy of the eldest daughter, Sharon, and the family’s struggle to accept her decision to give birth and to raise the child without revealing the identity of the father, who turns out to be a friend of her own father. Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., vacillates between disgust, embarrassment at the community’s almost tribal reaction to his family’s predicament, and, ultimately, acceptance of his daughter’s decision. His skirmishes with Sharon form the major conflict of the novel.
The Van tells the story of the business partnership between Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., and his friend Bimbo after they both lose their jobs. Jimmy has been struggling with unemployment; he takes the opportunity to spend time with his granddaughter but misses the male social interaction provided through work and evenings at the pub. Bimbo buys an old fish-and-chips van, and Jimmy joins him on his new job. At first, all goes well, but business and legal problems strain the friendship and, eventually, Bimbo drives the van into the sea. It is not clear whether the friendship can survive, but it appears Jimmy will with the support of his wife and family.
Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha
While Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha has earned many critical comparisons to James Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), it is important to note that Doyle’s novel does not seem to draw directly upon his own childhood experiences but rather upon his interactions with his own students and their parents. This novel shares a setting with the Barrytown trilogy as well as a reliance on dialect for character and exposition, and some critics have failed to detect a plot—a criticism levied at Doyle’s earlier novels as well. However, there is a story in Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha, though the narrator, and therefore the reader, becomes aware of it only late in the novel: A marriage dissolves because of economic and other pressures, and children struggle to deal with the consequences during a time (the novel is set in 1968) when broken marriages carried considerable social stigma.
The novel is narrated by ten-year-old Paddy, and the events he describes are those that would likely preoccupy a boy of his age in that time and place. At the beginning of the novel, he is part of the “in” crowd, though not a leader. His hobbies are soccer, picking at scabs, and tormenting his younger brother, Francis, whom he calls Sinbad. His relationship with Sinbad is ambivalent; his younger brother’s soccer skills exceed his own, and Paddy is confused by the mixed feelings of pride and hatred this causes him. He tortures Sinbad but defends him from others. Their fellow students are known by their actions: Some are pathetic and to be made fun of, some are strong and to be feared and appeased. The adults in Paddy’s life, the ones outside his family, are ancillary for the most part.
Some of the novel’s most significant moments are to be found in Paddy’s conversations with his father about patriotism and Irish independence, the Cold War, and the Middle East. At the novel’s conclusion, Paddy’s social status among his peers changes due to his father’s departure.
The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Doyle’s consideration of family dynamics takes a darker turn in The Woman Who Walked into Doors. Paula Spencer is abused at the hands of her husband, Charlo. The protagonist demonstrates a complicated mix of denial and inner strength. She recognizes that her situation, raising four children and living in constant fear, is at once very complicated and very simple. Her drinking, at first an apparent solution, eventually becomes a problem in its own right. The novel is ultimately a story of endurance and survival; the protagonist’s story of recovery continues in Doyle’s novel Paula Spencer.
A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing
A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing mark a substantial departure for Doyle; the two novels are works of historical fiction, a challenging mixture of historical fact and invention. The first novel describes the early life of Henry Smart and his experiences and exploits during and after the Easter Uprising of 1916. He encounters many of the famous historical figures who played public roles in the uprising and himself takes active part in the ensuing war for independence, even as he grows increasingly disillusioned over the lack of prospects either side offers for the poor and disenfranchised.
Oh, Play That Thing follows Henry Smart to America, in flight from his former Irish Republican Army associates. He works his way into the world of crime in New York through the gateway of advertising, eventually getting involved with bootlegging and pornography. He then flees to Chicago and befriends Louis Armstrong, whom he assists as a manager and bodyguard.