Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1995
Some Irish critics have complained that Doyle’s literary corpus perpetuates negative stereotypes about Ireland, with his narratives of boozing and sometimes promiscuous and often foolhardy characters. His defenders—and there are many of them, on all continents—justify the characters’ profanity and addictive behavior as accurate slices of life in an island...
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- Critical Essays
Some Irish critics have complained that Doyle’s literary corpus perpetuates negative stereotypes about Ireland, with his narratives of boozing and sometimes promiscuous and often foolhardy characters. His defenders—and there are many of them, on all continents—justify the characters’ profanity and addictive behavior as accurate slices of life in an island country that has experienced periods of industrial and commercial decline. Perhaps one of the best examples of Doyle as not only a masterful novelist but also a social critic comes early in The Commitments, when Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., is creating a locus of understanding for the wayward young Dubliners whom he is forming into his vision of a Motown-cover band. As the musicians and singers express skepticism about white kids in Dublin in the 1980’s covering the music of black kids in Detroit in the 1960’s, Rabbitte waxes eloquent:Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from. . . . Say it once, say it loud. I’m black an’ I’m proud. . . . The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads. . . . An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. . . . An’ the northsider Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin. Say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.
Rabbitte understands a basic concept of social justice, as well as a leveling feature of music: differences of race, culture, religion, and continent fade away as dispossessed peoples understand their similar plight. Once that level of understanding and awareness has occurred, then music that describes the anguish of the human heart in conflict will resonate not only within but across cultures.
Doyle could have remained within the fictional architecture of Barrytown, just as William Faulkner created and articulated his fictional world of Yoknapatawpha County in the majority of his novels. As Doyle approached his third decade as a professional writer, however, he moved beyond Barrytown in one direction to write children’s literature and in a radically different direction to write two novels focused on pathologic spousal abuse. Given his talents as a writer and his commitment to social justice in Ireland, it is likely that his future works will continue to be valued in both literary and social circles.
First published: 1987
Type of work: Novel
A young Irish music devotee conceives of and manages a Motown-cover band in 1980’s Dublin that shows promise but then self-destructs, a casualty of mismanaged egos and libidos.
The picaresque character of James “Jimmy” Rabbitte, Jr., manages both the group The Commitments and the novel The Commitments. Rabbitte is the mastermind of the concept of “Dublin soul” after the first wave of punk rock in the 1980’s. He takes out a classified ad in the Hot Press, the alternative newspaper in Dublin, which attracts a truly motley crew of mostly young north-side Dubliners to play honest, straightforward rhythm and blues in the tradition of Motown Records, down to the white shirts and black suits for the men and simple black dinner dresses for the three Commitmentettes.
Doyle exquisitely shows the partially planned, partially haphazard manner in which most local bands form. At the same time, Doyle’s descriptions of the characters’ situations and their disarmingly unique and poetic Irish-English diction and syntax provide insights into what seems to be an exceptionally authentic rendering of working-class Irish urban culture. Critics have both praised and reviled Doyle for his willingness to use not only the colloquialisms and slang of regional dialect but also a good deal of profanity, including repeated usages of what are generally thought to be the crudest swear words. While Doyle generally declines comment on his work, his defenders usually praise his ability to render the local idiom of Dublin’s north side, and the profane diction seems consistent with the young adults who populate his fiction.
Other critics find limitations in this novel’s scant character development beyond that of Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. However, the novel is only 165 pages long, and much of it contains either epigrammatic dialogue or the lyrics of dozens of 1950’s and 1960’s rhythm and blues hits. Other members of Jimmy’s immediate family, relegated perhaps to supporting status in this novel, essentially have their own novels later in the Barrytown trilogy. The Snapper is primarily Sharon Rabbitte’s novel and concerns her metamorphosing relationship with her family, especially her father, James Rabbitte, Sr.; The Van is primarily about the relationship of James, Sr., with his best friend, Bimbo.
As The Commitments begins to develop a regional following in the neighborhood, drummer Billy Mooney drops out because he cannot stomach that Declan “Deco” Cuffe, the band’s vocalist who never knew his own talent until he had twenty rum and blacks at the Christmas dinner dance and sang to the crowd while he was fully “locked,” has become an egotistical nightmare. The band’s senior citizen member, Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who purportedly played trumpet for James Brown, Otis Redding, and other great rhythm and blues artists in a long career, has returned to Dublin in his declining years to take care of his “Ma” and to mentor the band. His “mentoring” includes intimate escapades with two of the three Commitmentettes, which only exacerbates the internecine battles of ego and art that eventually derail the band just as it seems to be developing a reputation beyond its north-side neighborhood.
First published: 1990
Type of work: Novel
A twenty-year-old woman has a one-night stand with the father of a friend and then spends her pregnancy protecting his identity and redefining her own relationship with the members of her family.
The Snapper easily stands alone as an independent novel, yet it also seamlessly follows from the end of The Commitments. With the group disbanded, Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., spends most of this novel in an upstairs room of the family apartment, practicing his best disc jockey voice for what he now hopes will be his future career. The novel opens in medias res, just as the essential exposition for the text to follow is occurring. Sharon reveals that she is three months pregnant, expects to carry the baby to full term and raise it as a single mother, and refuses to identify the father. The balance of the novel covers the remaining six months in Sharon’s pregnancy, concluding as she delivers a healthy daughter, whom she names Georgina Rabbitte.
Although the dialogue remains “hilarious and haunting” (to quote from the San Francisco Chronicle review), there is less dialogue and more narration and narrative commentary than in The Commitments. Sharon’s innocent and isolated worries and opinions about her developing pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood as a single parent are delineated through the rambling interior monologue she undergoes as she makes herself read three pages nightly from texts she has borrowed from the public library.
Although the Barrytown community and Sharon’s parents initially obsess over the identity of the baby’s father, paternal and grandfatherly love and affection on the part of Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., combine with a sense of developing awe, as he increasingly appreciates his daughter’s imminent motherhood with an understanding that he never achieved in any of his wife’s pregnancies for their own five children. Veronica Rabbitte, Sharon’s mother, also balances a number of conflicting emotions and opinions as she manifests the characteristic fierce loyalty and independence of the Rabbitte family, especially when confronted by Doris Burgess on her front porch. The troubled Mrs. Burgess, wife of the middle-aged Lothario whom the Rabbittes suspect is the father of Sharon’s baby, has walked over to the Rabbitte residence and asked to see Sharon. Veronica states honestly that Sharon is at work and then brooks no further discussion about a relationship that her daughter has not publicly admitted. When Mrs. Burgess tries to force the issue, Veronica responds with a punch to her neighbor’s face, reclaiming her front porch and, perhaps in her mind, her daughter’s dignity as well.
This novel is suffused with the pain and ramifications of endemic poverty, yet most of the characters approach their impoverished lives with a concerted belief that they will have a rollicking good time today and every day in one way or another. While Sharon’s inner thoughts are often remorseful about herself and accusatory toward her family and friends, she eventually comes to terms with her predicament and acknowledges that Barrytown is comfortably tolerant of the sometimes foolish and reckless behavior of its residents.
Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha
First published: 1993
Type of work: Novel
A working-class ten-year-old boy in Doyle’s fictional Barrytown region of the north side of Dublin experiences adolescence with his group of picaresque friends, as he and his brother view the deterioration of his parents’ marriage.
Both the attention to the depiction of Irish characters and to contemporary Irish colloquialisms and north-side Dublin dialect are suggested in the title of Doyle’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha. The novel has been justifiably and favorably compared to numerous bildungsromans, or coming-of-age novels, including Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book), and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha indeed shows some of the struggles of the title character as he tries to have fun as a young boy, even as the circumstances of his family and his neighborhood cause him to grapple with some adult-sized issues and problems. Paddy is proud of his status as an oldest son, and he is characteristically condescending to his younger brother, Sinbad, and his two baby sisters.
As lower-middle-class suburban sprawl moves northward from Dublin, new treeless housing subdivisions under construction provide a dangerous but thrilling landscape for Paddy and his hooligan friends, Aidan, Liam, and Kevin. They terrorize the younger kids in the neighborhood, perform acrobatic feats of boyhood heroism on slag piles of discarded cement, and even create mock-Viking funeral rites for dead rats among the construction rubble. Doyle’s narrative voice, channeled through the ten-year-old consciousness of Paddy, is authentic and unsentimental. Given the almost clichéd renderings of Paddy’s existence—poverty, crime, deteriorating family situation, and a lack of positive role models—the novel could have become sentimental or trite, but it does not because Paddy never feels sorry for himself but simply exerts his make-do Irish spirit on his situation.
As the novel proceeds and Paddy becomes aware of the demise of his parents’ relationship in a way that his younger siblings cannot, he exerts his will in a manner that seems especially suited to a headstrong ten-year-old boy. After he has become disturbingly accustomed to the nightly, lengthy arguments between his parents, which he can hear with clarity even though he is two closed doors away, he decides to stay up all night and to repeat, quietly but insistently, the simple whispered word “stop” in order to quell his parents’ arguments and to return the household to some state of repose and assumed peace. Like many of the characters whom Doyle created in the Barrytown trilogy, Paddy Clarke continues in the tradition of the indefatigable picaro, who will seek creative and nonconformist solutions to problems that are likely never to be solved or corrected—which makes young Paddy’s attempt all the more gallant yet still believable.
Unlike Huck Finn, who happily set out for the American frontier at the end of his novel, or young Stephen Daedalus, who in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man chose to leave Ireland for Paris in order to seek his destiny as a writer, Paddy Clarke remains in Barrytown at the end of Doyle’s novel. It is his father, not Paddy, who leaves quietly. Paddy knows instinctively that his father will not return, and the other children in the neighborhood taunt him as the language of the novel’s title is reprised in anonymous dialogue near the end of the text.