SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Dubliners.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 165 (23 August 1991): 35-6.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott offers a positive assessment of The Van, praising the novel as humorous and deftly written.]
Roddy Doyle is a phenomenon. A comic Irish writer without immediate precedent, his cultish antidotes to cynicism are an extraordinary popular success. His first novel, The Commitments, met with wild enthusiasm, and the dubious honour of being filmed by Alan Parker (for release in October). The Snapper followed and, with a BBC adaptation of that under way, Doyle has now produced a third view of the Rabbitte family of Barrytown, Dublin.
The Van shifts focus to the newly unemployed Jimmy Rabbitte Sr, reduced to only a couple of evenings drinking a week. His gloom is lifted when his friend Bimbo is made redundant. They rehabilitate a “Chipper van” with Bimbo's redundancy cheque, and set up a sweaty office outside the pub in time for Italia '90. As Ireland goes “soccer mad” and their burger business booms, Jimmy Sr's natural exuberance propels him towards becoming the kind of “narky little bollix” he despises.
The Doyle phenomenon is largely explained by the fizzing energy of his humour. The big heart of his writing is in its dialogue, which hums with an idiosyncratic veracity. These books are funny all the way down to their syntax, enabling Doyle to sustain my laughter over two or three pages. A great debunking Irish humour combines with playful sadism, to violent effect. Jimmy Sr is always “bursting his shite laughing” and it becomes infectious.
The comedy is also serious; people laugh when they probably ought to cry, and yet it avoids cuteness. Jimmy Sr celebrates any behaviour as long as it is done “for a laugh”. This lack of consensus judgments, formally reflected by an absence of narrative perspective, is the sanctuary on offer in Doyle's novels. I developed a sudden longing for chips and the World Cup reading this, and was almost persuaded that “there is nothing funnier than hearing a three year old say Fuck.”
Though less dominated by dialogue than the earlier books, The Van is no less minimal. The closest Doyle's microcosmic present tense gets to literariness is having the Rabbittes incongruously discussing “bukes” over breakfast. While Veronica reads Golding, and Darren ponders Manley Hopkins, Jimmy Sr decides that Dumas is “shite”, and Dickens is “just brilliant”. His aesthetic appreciation of a pint is far more developed, though “nothing was more important” than Ireland scoring against England.
The Van is not just a very funny book, it is also faultless comic writing. While Doyle strives to remain invisible throughout, his habitually abrupt endings evince a careful crafting. When Tracy Rabbitte is pulled up for swearing, she responds “Jesus … —It's not a curse … —It's a name.” It is in the gentle absurdity of such distinctions that Roddy Doyle flourishes.
Roddy Doyle 1958-
Irish novelist, screenwriter, playwright, short story writer, children's writer, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Doyle's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.
Doyle emerged among a group of young Irish writers during the 1980s to become one of the most popular Irish novelists of his era. His Barrytown trilogy—The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991)—focuses on a working-class Irish community, illuminating the behaviors and dreams of his characters through their actions and use of vernacular. Doyle has been noted for his recurring use of Gaelic and Irish idiom in his novels, though some critics have taken issue with his characters's liberal use of obscenity. Dialogue...
(This entire section contains 1676 words.)
is one of the major driving forces behind Doyle's narratives, a technique which has caused many reviewers to label his fiction as “cinematic.” This comparison is not unjustified—Doyle has written the screenplays for the film adaptations of his Barrytown trilogy as well as writing the acclaimed television miniseriesFamily (1994), which presented a graphic portrayal of many social issues that affect modern Irish families, including domestic violence, alcoholism, and drug use.
Doyle was born in Dublin, Ireland, on May 8, 1958, to Rory Doyle, a printer, and Ita Bolger Doyle, a secretary. He was raised north of Dublin in the working-class suburb of Kilbarrack in housing projects erected during the post-World War II housing boom. After attending St. Fintan's Christian Brothers School in Sutton, Doyle continued his education at University College, Dublin, earning a B.A. in English and geography in 1979. He returned to Kilbarrack after graduation and began teaching at Greendale Community School. Doyle earned the nickname “Punky Doyle” from his students for his penchant for wearing leather jackets and jeans to class. In 1978 Doyle joined the Irish Socialist Party and remained a member until 1982. After contributing short articles to student magazines such as In Dublin, Doyle wrote his first novel Your Granny Was a Hunger Striker, but was never able to find a publisher for the work. In 1987 Doyle founded his own publishing company, King Farouk Press, and printed three thousand copies of his second novel The Commitments. He distributed the novel to local bookstores and attracted a large underground audience. Eventually the London publishing firm Heinemann bought the rights and re-released the novel which became a critical and popular success. The Commitments became the first novel in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy—the third novel in the series, The Van was shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. His novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993, and Doyle subsequently resigned his teaching position to focus on writing full-time. In 1994 Doyle wrote the screenplay for a controversial four-part television miniseries, Family, about an abusive husband and his family, which aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom and the Radio Telefís Éireann (RFC) in Ireland. The critical reaction to Family inspired a string of political debates in Ireland, with some complaining that the series portrayed the working-class Irish in an overly-negative light. Shortly after the miniseries aired, Doyle joined Irish protests for women's rights, abortion rights, and the legalization of divorce, which was illegal in Ireland until 1995. Doyle married Belinda Moller in 1989, with whom he has two sons, Rory and Jack. Aside from his novels and screenplays, Doyle is also an accomplished playwright—his plays Brownbread (1987) and War (1989) enjoyed successful runs at Dublin's SFX Centre. He has also written for children—his book The Giggler Treatment (2000) was shortlisted for a W. H. Smith Children's Book of the Year Award in 2001.
In Doyle's Barrytown trilogy, “Barrytown” stands as a fictional counterpart for Dublin's Northside. The Barrytown community is comprised of mostly uneducated working-class characters, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed, struggling to find the material means necessary for survival. However, although Doyle's characters are aware of their dire economic situations, they refuse to be defeated. Instead they find comfort in humor, seek help from communal networks of friends and family, and display unmitigated pride in their regional dialect. The Commitments focuses on Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., who assembles and manages a white Irish soul band called The Commitments. The band idolizes 1960s American Motown music, and Jimmy believes that the group will not only bring him financial success, but will also give him a vehicle for his political beliefs. After becoming a local success in Dublin, The Commitments fall apart due to internal fighting, jealousy, and personal differences. The Snapper continues Doyle's focus on the Barrytown community, following the experiences of Sharon Rabbitte, Jimmy's unwed sister, who is pregnant as a result of having been raped by a family friend. Sharon refuses to tell her parents who the rapist is, and her father, Jimmy Sr., becomes obsessed with identifying the culprit. As Sharon tries to keep her father from finding out the truth, they both realize that they need each other for emotional support during Sharon's pregnancy. The final installment of the Barrytown trilogy, The Van, chronicles struggles of Jimmy Sr. and his friend Bimbo as they deal with Ireland's massive unemployment rate during the early 1990s. The two friends form a business partnership and buy a catering van to sell fish and chips. Mirroring his son's experiences in The Commitments, Jimmy Sr.'s business and friendship with Bimbo is consumed by bickering, greed, and jealousy. Doyle also composed the screenplays for the film adaptations of his Barrytown trilogy—The Commitments adaptation was released in 1991, The Snapper in 1993, and The Van in 1996. Doyle's 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is also set in Barrytown, though it represents a tonal and thematic shift from the previous novels' focus on modern Irish culture and dialogue-driven stories. Set in 1968, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha views the deterioration of a marriage told from the first-person perspective of a ten-year-old boy. As Paddy Clarke tries to understand his parents' behavior, he must also deal with his burgeoning adolescence, neighborhood bullies, and the political environment in Ireland in the late 1960s.
Doyle's television miniseries Family recounts the physical, sexual, and emotional violence within a working-class Irish family, the Spencers. Told in four parts, the story is related from the perspective of four different family members—Charlo, Paula, Nicola, and John Paul—illuminating the cycle and inevitable escalation of violence in an abusive situation. Doyle followed up the miniseries with The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), a novel featuring the same characters as Family but related solely from viewpoint of Paula Spencer. The book opens with Paula being informed of the death of Charlo, her estranged husband. Through flashbacks, Paula reflects on her life before Charlo, the beginnings of Charlo's physical and emotional abuse, and the moment when she finally left him. In 1997 Doyle contributed to Finbar's Hotel, a short story collection that published stories from seven different Irish novelists—Dermot Bolger, Joseph O'Connor, Anne Enright, Jennifer Johnston, Hugo Hamilton, Colm Tóibín, and Doyle—but withheld which author had written which story. Each story in the collection is set around an aging hotel in Dublin on the eve of its demolition. Doyle turned his attention to Irish history in A Star Called Henry (1999), the first novel in a projected trilogy titled The Last Roundup. The novel relates the early life of Henry Smart. Born in 1901, Henry lives on the streets from a young age and becomes engrossed in the dark underworld of early-twentieth-century Irish slums. As Henry grows older, he finds himself intertwined with many of the most significant moments in Irish history including The Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the formation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In 2002 Doyle published a biography of his parents titled Rory & Ita, which follows their lives from their individual childhoods through their marriage. Each chapter shifts alternately between his mother and father's perspective, showing how they both view their relationship and life in twentieth-century Ireland. Doyle has also written three children's works, Not Just for Christmas (1999), The Giggler Treatment, and Rover Saves Christmas (2001).
Doyle's novels have attracted a wide popular audience in Ireland and abroad, with readers praising the Barrytown trilogy's humor and thoughtful examination of familial relationships. However, some critics have offered mixed assessments of the Barrytown novels, faulting Doyle for weak plots and gratuitous use of slang and profanity. Other reviewers have countered that Doyle's emphasis on dialogue and local vernacular are the defining and most appealing aspects of his prose. Such commentators have noted that the dense language in The Commitments and The Van has allowed Doyle to create a protracted study of a very specific Irish community. Though the Barrytown trilogy has been most frequently lauded for its humor and wit, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha has been considered a more serious work by critics, who have commended Doyle's new focus on social issues. While some have faulted the novel for its lack of introspection, episodic plot, and reliance on anecdotes, a number of reviewers have praised the work's realism, effective use of dialect, and engaging descriptions of boyhood and working-class Ireland. The miniseries Family has attracted harsh criticism from critics and popular audiences alike. Many have argued that the series portrayed the working-class Irish as foul-mouthed, illiterate alcoholics and fostered negative cultural stereotypes. Others have disagreed, complimenting the series for drawing focus to important, though unsavory, aspects of Irish society. Women's rights advocates, in particular, have commended Family for highlighting the plight of battered women. The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Doyle's narrative continuation of Family, has been more generally accepted by critics and readers, with commentators noting his skill at creating a believable female narrator. Some reviewers have found fault with the novel's lack of sentiment, though others have argued that Doyle's dispassionate authorial voice captures the emotional emptiness of his protagonist. Doyle's historical novel A Star Called Henry has been met with a mixed critical reception. While some critics have maintained that Doyle's attempts at magic realism fail and that the story is implausible, many reviewers have complimented his thematic shift and welcomed his insights into Irish history.
SOURCE: Fitzgerald, Penelope. “Fried Nappy.” London Review of Books 13, no. 17 (12 September 1991): 16.
[In the following review, Fitzgerald maintains that The Van showcases Doyle's sharp wit and ear for dialogue.]
This is the third and last of Roddy Doyle's novels about the Rabbitte family of Barrymount, an unprepossessing council estate suburb of North Dublin, much like Kilbarrack, where Doyle was born himself. Barrymount, although by no means a foul rag-and-bone shop, is a place for dreams to start. In The Commitments young Jimmy Rabbitte decides that Ireland is ready for soul music and gets his group together. Just as there seems to be a chance with a recording company they desert him one by one. In The Snapper Sharon Rabbitte, drunk in the car park at the Soccer Club Christmas do, gets pregnant by that fucking old eejit Mister Burgess—the father, what's more, of a friend of hers. Still, the family will help to look after her snapper, and she can always pretend she's had a night out with a sailor. In The Van Jimmy Rabbitte Sr is helping to run a fish-and-chip van. It ends up a wreck. All these could be called success stories. What matters is the strength to believe in possibilities. There is hardly any of the bitterness here which the past generates. Barrymount, as Doyle shows it, is not much interested in the What Happened Shite.
The Van is Jimmy Sr's book, but since The Snapper he has become a much weaker figure. He is a skilled plasterer, but his firm has let him go. He no longer has a car, hangs about the public library (where they've run out of Action Packs for the Unemployed) and fixes things about the house—one at a time, though, to make them last. His relationship with Darren, the youngest son, the clever one, has deteriorated. When he tells the argumentative Darren not to forget who paid for the dinner that's in front of him, Darren answers: ‘I know who paid for it. The State.’ But Darren wishes he had not said this.
Jimmy Sr's tools are not likely to be needed again.
Jimmy Sr had a mug for work that he'd had for years; he still had it. It was a big plain white one, no cracks, no stupid slogans. He put two teabags in it; used to. My God he'd never forget the taste of the first cup of tea in the morning, usually in a bare room in a new house with muck and dirt everywhere, freezing; fuck me, it was great; it scalded him on the way down; he could feel it all the way. And the taste it left; brilliant; brilliant. He always used two bags, squeezed the bejesus out of them … After a few gulps he'd sip at it and turn around and look at his work … Then he'd gulp down the rest of the tea and get back to it. The mug was outside in the shed, in a bag with his other work stuff. He'd wrapped toilet paper around it.
Jimmy Sr would normally say ‘jacks paper’, but not in this passage, where we need to feel his respect for the mug. This surely is what Doyle means when he says he wants to show his characters thinking, rather than himself writing.
He prefers, however, to write largely in dialogue. As a teacher in a Dublin Community School he knows how people talk, but a teacher's viewpoint is not what he wants. The dialogue is heard in concerted passages, and Doyle has a range of dashes, longer dashes, and exclamation marks which act as a kind of musical notation. The language itself, like James Kelman's Glaswegian, has its repetitions and limitations, but is subtle when you get to know it. Jimmy Sr notices at their dinner, when they're talking about what's happening these days, that ‘the twins called Thatcher Thatcher and Bush Bush but they called Gorbachev Mr Gorbachev: that said something.’ Tom Paulin has said that Doyle ‘pushes Irish English to wonderful imaginative extremes’, but doesn't mean by this quite what you might expect. Doyle is a wordmaster and you have to trust him, and do trust him, as to when the right word is ‘Jaysis’ and when ‘Jesus’ or ‘Good Jayesus’, and the distinction between Hiyeh, Hiyis and Howyeh. ‘Fucking’ (which is usually taken to have lost any meaning at all) is an indicator in this novel of character and situation. Veronica, the mother, never uses it, and there is a swearbox on the kitchen table in consideration of Gina, Sharon's snapper. All agree with this on principle. ‘Bitches,’ says Sharon to her young sisters, ‘if Gina starts usin dirty language I'll kill yiz.’ Jimmy's great friend Bimbo, a bakery worker, ‘hardly ever said Fuck’, and this establishes him as what he is, a mild nature, a sensitive. His doorbell plays the first bars of ‘Strangers in the Night’, although there doesn't seem much point to it when his house is the ‘exact same’ of all the others in the street and you could hear a knock on the door anywhere in the house.
Bimbo, then, dispenses with Barrymount's metalanguage, and Jimmy Sr himself knows there is a time and place for it. On Christmas morning, for instance, he is stuck making conversation with Bimbo's old mother-in-law.
Maybe she hadn't said anything. Maybe she couldn't help it; she couldn't control her muscles, the ones that held her mouth up.
He heard feet on the path.
It was out before he knew it. And she nodded; she did; she'd heard him; oh Christ!
She couldn't have. No, she just nodded at the same time, that was all. He hoped.
Doyle takes a risk with the structure of his new book, which is more complex than the other two. It starts in a low key, reflecting Jimmy Sr's empty days. About a quarter of the way through Bimbo, too, is let go by his bakery firm and puts part of his redundancy money into a fish-and-chip van. With no wheels, no brakes, no engine, no water, no electricity, filthy, too, almost beyond purification, the van might stand for the valiant illusions of Barrymount. Neither Bimbo nor Jimmy Sr knows even how to peel a potato. But they open up for business, and the book's action gets into gear with demonic scenes of frying and spilling and beating the frozen cod, hard as chipboard, against the rusty freezer. The family lend a hand as the van becomes a kind of fortress under siege. The fellow from the Environmental Health is on their track. Kids try to disconnect the gas canisters. One of Gina's nappies gets fried in batter (‘it'd look like a piece of cod, folded up,’ says Bimbo to the raving customer). All these splendours and miseries keep pace (the year is 1990) with Ireland's successes in the World Cup.
The country had gone soccer mad. Oul' ones were explaining offside to each other … There were no proper dinners being made at all. Half the mammies in Barrymount were watching the afternoon matches … The whole place was living on chips.
Parked outside the Hikers' Nest for the quarter-finals, the reeking van reaches the height of its earthly glory and Jimmy Sr takes home £160 on top of the dole. ‘And then they got beaten by the Italians and that was the end of that.”
After this dramatic check comes the third movement of the book. The publishers have accurately described The Van as ‘a tender tale of male friendship, swimming in grease and stained with ketchup’. With the decline of the chipper trade comes a falling-out which we wouldn't have thought possible. Bimbo—or perhaps it was his wife Maggie, one of those destructive women with a grand head on her shoulders—comes to believe that he'd do better with the van on his own. Jimmy Sr, once again, is let go. Roddy Doyle, however, has an impeccable sense of endings. We last see the two of them by night on the strand at Dollymount, the place where Stephen Dedalus recognised his destiny. They're knee-deep in the freezing water (‘Jeeesus!!’), shoving drunkenly at the poxy van which has come between them and which, Bimbo confusedly knows, must be committed as a sacrifice to the sea. Even so, ‘You'll be able to get it when the tide goes out again,’ says Jimmy Sr.
The Commitments has been filmed and the film rights of The Snapper are sold. When they get round to The Van, let's hope they can find a way of conveying the delicacy of human feeling in this book, and above all in its last scene.
Brownbread (play) 1987
*The Commitments (novel) 1987
War (play) 1989
†The Snapper (novel) 1990
‡The Van (novel) 1991
The Barrytown Trilogy: The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van (novels) 1992
Brownbread and War (plays) 1992
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (novel) 1993
§Family (screenplay) 1994
The Woman Who Walked into Doors (novel) 1996
Finbar's Hotel [with others] (short stories) 1997
Not Just for Christmas (juvenilia) 1999
A Star Called Henry (novel) 1999
The Giggler Treatment [illustrations by Brian Ajhar] (juvenilia) 2000
When Brendan Met Trudy (screenplay) 2000
Rover Saves Christmas [illustrations by Brian Ajhar] (juvenilia) 2001
∥Yeats Is Dead!: A Novel by Fifteen Irish Authors in Aid of Amnesty International [contributor; edited by Joseph O'Connor] (novel) 2001
Rory & Ita (biography) 2002
*Doyle wrote the screenplay adaptation with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais for the 1991 film.
†Doyle wrote the screenplay adaptation for the 1993 film.
‡Doyle wrote the screenplay adaptation for the 1996 film.
§The Family appeared as a four-part television mini-series on the BBC and RFC in 1994.
∥Doyle contributed the first chapter to this serial novel which includes chapters by Joseph O'Connor, Frank McCourt, and Anthony Cronin, among others.
SOURCE: Appelo, Tim. “Down the Rabbitte Hole.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 September 1992): 3, 15.
[In the following review, Appelo applauds Doyle's use of the vernacular as well as his narrative structure in The Van.]
Unlike the heroes of his first novel The Commitments—the Irish soul band now of motion-picture fame—Roddy Doyle has perfect pitch from the get-go. He can write pages of lifelike, impeccably profane dialogue without a false note or a dull fill, economically evoking every lark and emotional plunge in the life of an entire Irish family. The Van is the third volume in a trilogy about the family Rabbitte.
Lately, it's been mostly plunges for Jimmy Rabbitte, because Jimmy's out of work. He sits at home trying and failing to read, a library book, The Man in the Iron Mask, while his wife Veronica and son are reading for degrees that will get them someplace. The littler kids are busy learning to smoke ciggies and swear. Jimmy's fretful fingernails are all bitten down, so he even has to ask Veronica to untie his knotted shoelace one night. In this tiny episode, Doyle brilliantly sketches Jimmy's mingled rage, helplessness and pleasure at being mothered a bit, and Veronica's irritable affection.
Then Jimmy's middle-aged pub buddy Bimbo is “made redundant” (laid off) at work too, so he buys a horrible old fish-and-chips van. Upon beholding the thing, Jimmy wonders: “How did it get greasy on the [expletive] outside?” Still, Jimmy's impressed, and the two switch from Guinness-gargling to fast-food entrepreneurship.
It's a new life. The next thing you know, Jimmy's so happy he's dropping his drawers in the back yard, dangling his “marriage tackle” and serenading Veronica with a rock ‘n’ roll oldie John Lennon never did any nastier:
SHAKE IT TO THE LEFT / SHAKE IT TO THE RIGHT / DO THE HIPPY HIPPY SHAKE / WITH ALL OF YOUR MIGHT!
Jimmy and Bimbo bring a like exuberance to the battered-fish business. They don't, for instance, let the van's lack of running water trouble them—if you just scrub the crud off the inside walls every day or three, who'll know the difference? When local teens ritually stone the van, the proprietors simply batten down the hatches and don't lean against the walls, where large dents blossom and nearly penetrate the metal.
The same hatch-slamming procedure is followed when Jimmy's granddaughter visits and needs changing—it wouldn't do to let pesky health inspectors glimpse such a gross violation of code, on top of all their routine violations. In the darkness, they take care to retrieve the infant before she can crawl over and fall into the deep-fat fryer—these are commendable lads! Who's to blame them when they accidentally mistake a diaper for a bit of frozen cod, battering and frying it and presenting it to a customer, who promptly turns from ravenous to furious? What's he so steamed about? It's not as if it was a used one. Pursued by the customer on a bike, Jimmy and Bimbo flee in the van, pitching frozen cod at him out the back to knock him over.
There is more than a bit o' blarney in The Van. Doyle would never describe, say, a hot plate in the chips van as being clean; he has Jimmy bray, “Yeh'd ride your missis on it it's so clean.” An ungenerous character “wouldn't give yeh the steam off his piss if you were dyin' o' dehydration.” A woman seated at a pub is not simply shapely, she's got “the fine set of lungs on her, and her arse fitted nicely on the stool; there was nothing flowing over the sides.” (True, you can see the roots in her dyed hair: “Another couple of months and she'd look like a skunk.”)
But Doyle is no sloppy green-tongued laddie belching malodorous Hibernic sentimentality. Every act, every syllable has a plausible consequence, and he stays extraordinarily close to ordinary life. Often Doyle reminds me of what I imagine Raymond Carver would be writing had he lived and quit indulging in that drab verse: propulsive stories of everyday events charged with hilarity and knowing sorrow. Like Carver, Doyle has an immensely good heart, but he's too good a writer to give in to it.
He's not afraid to show us coldly, for instance, the probable upshot of Jimmy's revivified marriage: dismal attempts at adultery with women he fancies to be more high-toned than his long-suffering one-and-only. More troubling still, he depicts the miserable dissolution of his male bonding with Bimbo, as a direct result of their success in escaping the misery of unemployment that cemented their lifelong bond in the first place. When Bimbo had more than 10 pints inside him, he was all grins, but give him sobering responsibilities, make him Jimmy's boss, and all of a sudden they're a two-man microcosm of Thatcher's class-warring United Kingdom, kicking and gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.
The conclusion of The Van is abrupt, inconclusive, unsatisfying—that is, rigorously like life itself. But the tale stays with you, peopling your imagination. Doyle at his best is like a sheet of morning sun on an icy road: He dazzles without warming.
SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “What It's Like to Be Ten—Brilliant.” Spectator 270, no. 8605 (12 June 1993): 48-9.
[In the following review, Shone compliments Doyle's economy of detail and the balance of humor and humanity in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.]
Have you heard the one about the Irish novelist who was so good for a laugh nobody could take him seriously? He wrote a novel which covered the holocaust, the second world war, heaven, hell and the struggle for Irish independence—and all that by page 30. I'm sorry, bad joke. All these subjects are not the themes of Roddy Doyle's new novel, rather, they're the homework (‘eccer’) of its ten-year-old narrator—which says a lot about Doyle's attitude to the sort of thematic lumber which bolsters your average Booker winner.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha plunges the reader into the life of young Dubliner Paddy Clarke—born in 1958, as was Doyle—and makes of his world an everywhere. From the jetty from which Paddy and his friends dive-bomb into the sea (‘it was brilliant’), to the building site where they stoke up camp fires, to the classroom of their tyrannous teacher, Mister Hennessy (who has 15 nasal hairs), Paddy wheels us in and out of these settings with all the frenetic impatience of someone whose idea of forward planning is waiting for a scab to form so that he can pick it. And beyond this microcosm? Well, there's the poorer housing estates (where the kids don't eat salad); there's Africa (where they don't eat anything); and then, of course, there's heaven and hell, which is where you go if you steal a copy of Football Monthly.
The cast list has the same skewed centre of gravity. In order of importance: George Best, Paddy's Ma, Paddy's Da, and his younger brother ‘Sinbad’. Plus some wonderful walk-on parts for his classmates. Dermot Grimes ‘who's picking his nose and doesn't think I can see him’ will stay with me for some time: from such slim pickings are Doyle characters made. At least Dermot gets a nose, which is more than Paddy's two baby sisters, Deirdre and Catherine, get. Blink and you miss them. Deirdre doesn't get so much as a dummy.
Doyle's critics have often mistaken this economy for short shrift. Where are the descriptive flourishes? The scenic once-overs? The character head-to-toes? The prose which we expect from an Irish writer? Here, as with the Barrytown trilogy, Doyle's most fulsome adjective is ‘brilliant’. It's worth pointing out that this is the first of Doyle's novels that's got a first-person narrator, and so there are a few descriptions of objects scattered here and there—a stretch of recently-laid tarmac ‘like an elephant's skin around its eyes’, a jellyfish like a ‘runny umbrella’—but unlike, say, Updike's description of a block of ice in Rabbit, Run, the comparisons are entirely in character: both elephant and umbrella take you closer to ten-year-old Paddy, not 35-year-old Roddy.
Who wants to waste time arguing with a fallacy, though? That Doyle is generous enough to give centre-stage to his characters, not self-advertising adjectival clusters, shouldn't blind us to who is stage-managing the show. Doyle has written one of the best novels I have read about what it is to be a precocious ten-year-old, caught between self-absorption and a wild, sponge-like curiosity—what it is like to be old enough to note that a cock crowing does in fact sound surprisingly like ‘cock-a-doodle-do’, and that, when it comes to spying, ‘keyholes were never any good’, but still young enough to puzzle over adult expressions like ‘lipstick on your collar’. Actually, he had me puzzling over this one too, before clearing the matter up once and for all: ‘Women were bad shots in the dark.’
Paddy's age allows Doyle to return to one of his favourite preoccupations: the way all sorts of important subjects—war, religion, politics—permeate through to ordinary lives only as pinpricks, princess-and-pea fashion. Paddy serves up what he learns at school to his parents in hilariously undigested gobbets. When a mouse is found scrambling to escape the Clarke toilet bowl, Paddy informs his parents, sonorously, ‘the life expectancy of a mouse is about 18 months’. ‘Not in this house,’ his Dad replies, and flushes it down the toilet. And that's just the life expectancy of mice. You can guess where Paddy's worries about Arab-Israeli tension get him.
Doyle has a whale of a time on the swings and roundabouts of register: one minute the cod-solemnities of the aspirant adult, the next the callous dismissiveness of the indifferent child. Paddy's favourite story is about Father Damien and the lepers, and his retelling of it comes draped in all the pomposities of a religious text-book-cum-tour-guide:
The bishop was pleased and edified by the bravery of his young missionary … the church is still standing and may be seen by travellers to Molokoi today.
But within seconds the po-face has done an about-face and spun off into irreverence:
Did you hear about the leper cowboy? He threw his leg over his horse. Did you hear about the leper gambler? He threw in his hand.
These quick-fire gags make you sit up with a start. And then the reason why hits you: Doyle isn't, properly speaking, a comic writer at all, as the many comparisons with P. G. Wodehouse have suggested. His writing is a perfect illustration of the fact that, if you get your detail down pat, the gags take care of themselves. When that runny umbrella brushes against him in the sea, Paddy rushes ashore to his waiting friend, telling us, ‘I showed him my wound’. That ‘wound’ is brilliant: it hits the spot and the funny bone with the self-same stroke.
Gutsy, gusty, enormously affectionate, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha can reel off this brand of superior faux-naivety by the yard. And then, in the last third or so, as he did with The Van, Doyle etches the realism just that little bit deeper, pushing the humour through into pathos. Paddy's proud regurgitation of the facts and figures he has picked up at school, it turns out, masks a fledgling awareness of a fact much closer to home: the disintegration of his parents' marriage. Doyle's jocular title is no laughing matter, but a bullying school-yard taunt: ‘Paddy Clarke, Paddy Clarke—has no Da, Ha Ha Ha’.
The title of this novel, in fact, pretty much sums up why Doyle failed to win the Booker in 1991 with The Van. Belly-laughs are not one of the things for which Booker winners are noted. It's a shame because the novel that follows—by turns truthful, hilarious, painfully sad and frequently all three at once—is as good an argument as any of his novels as to why he should.
Allen, Brooke. “Silence, Exile, Cunning.” New Criterion 18, no. 3 (November 1999): 60-5.
Allen evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of A Star Called Henry.
Doyle, Roddy, and Karen Sbrockey. “Something of a Hero: An Interview with Roddy Doyle.” Literary Review 42, no. 4 (summer 1999): 537-52.
Doyle discusses the craft of writing, his influences, and critical reactions to his body of work.
Foran, Charles. “The Troubles of Roddy Doyle.” Saturday Night 111, no. 3 (April 1996): 58-64.
Foran explores Doyle's cinematic and literary works, particularly the mini-series Family and The Woman Who Walked into Doors.
Hensher, Philip. “Scenes from Provincial Life.” Spectator 276 (30 March 1996): 27-8.
Hensher criticizes Doyle for merely highlighting social problems in The Woman Who Walked into Doors and not offering any reasonable solutions.
McGlynn, Mary. “‘But I Keep on Thinking and I'll Never Come to a Tidy Ending’: Roddy Doyle's Useful Nostalgia.” Literature Interpretation Theory 10, no. 1 (July 1999): 87-105.
McGlynn analyzes the theme and function of nostalgia in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked into Doors.
Myers, Kevin. “Beating Any Old Drum.” Spectator 283, no. 8926 (4 September 1999): 32-3.
Myers finds historical inaccuracies in A Star Called Henry and notes the implausibility of certain actions and events.
Taylor, D. J. “Seven Authors in Search of Some Characters.” Spectator 279, no. 8829 (19 October 1997): 47.
Taylor praises the anonymous short stories in Finbar's Hotel and comments that the seven pieces come together as a “very good novel.” Taylor also notes that “the only obvious signature is that scrawled by Roddy Doyle all over Benny, the middle-aged raff vainly scouring his room for a mini-bar.”
Additional coverage of Doyle's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 143; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 73; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 81; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 194; DISCovering Authors 3.0; and Literature Resource Center.
SOURCE: O'Hagan, Andrew. “Eating Jesus.” London Review of Books 15, no. 13 (8 July 1993): 17.
[In the following review, O'Hagan reflects on the parallels between his own childhood and the fictitious childhood of Paddy Clarke in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, complimenting Doyle's ability to realistically narrate the novel from a ten-year-old's perspective.]
When I made my First Communion, a famously bitter Catholic aunt of mine took me into a side-chapel of our church. She wrapped me up in her arms, right in the middle of all her perfumery, straightened my red sash, and told me I was ‘blessed, blessed, blessed’. Then out of her bag she handed me a wooden crucifix with a luminous lime-green Christ glued onto it. ‘It's from The Grotto,’ she whispered. ‘Keep it beside you.’
I always did keep it beside me, as it turned out. It glowed for years on my bedroom wall between the Communion certificate and a picture of Marilyn Monroe leaning over a veranda in The Seven-Year Itch. I've always associated that crucifix with the break-up of my mother and father's marriage. I used to lie back in the darkness of that damp little box-room and listen to them fighting downstairs. I'd tremble a bit, hearing their harsh voices and their slapping and banging around. As I listened, I'd bite the feet of the green Christ; I'd take it off the wall and bite His feet.
One night, after a raging argument between them, they went to separate beds leaving a window open. The house got robbed: my clock, camera and binoculars got nicked off the table beside my bed. The crucifix—with Christ bitten up to the knee by now—was left on the table by itself. They started arguing the minute I got up and told them things were missing. A few days later, I smashed the cross in a fit of something; just broke the green man to bits. I then went downstairs and caught them slapping like crazy outside the kitchen. He stood by the door with a couple of Tesco bags filled with jumpers and stuff. His face was crimson. My mother led me by the head into the kitchen and closed the door.
Paddy Clarke, the ten-year-old hero of Roddy Doyle's remarkable new novel [Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha], rocks at night to the sound of his parents' scratching at the usual matrimonial sores. The intermittent din of their growing unhappiness is the primary soundtrack to his life at home. We watch him try to make sense of it, to explain it both to himself and his brother Sinbad (whom he calls Francis in moments of seriousness):
—Can you hear them? Francis?
That was all. I knew he wouldn't say any more. We listened to the sharp mumbles coming up from downstairs. We did, not just me. We listened for a long time. The silences were worst, waiting for it to start again, or louder. A door sort of slammed; the back door—I heard the glass shake.
—That's what it's like every night.
He said nothing.
—It's like that every night, I said …
—It's only talking, he said.
—It's not; they're shouting.
Paddy Clarke worries about things; but he has a good time lighting fires and writing his name with sticks in wet cement. He and his pal Kevin use the building sites over at the new corporation houses as adventure playgrounds and jump off the jetty during games of Journey To The Bottom Of The Sea. He wants to be George Best, is always on the look-out for horrible ways to die, and has vivid explanations for everything:
Some of us weren't allowed to swim down at the seafront. If you cut your toe on a rock you'd get polio. A boy from Barrytown Drive, Seán Rickard, died and it was supposed to have been because he'd swallowed a mouthful of the seafront water. Someone else said he'd swallowed a gobstopper and it got caught in his windpipe.
Death and destruction fascinate them. They think it would be brilliant and cool to have a dead mother like their pals Liam and Aidan. When not sharing a box of Swan Vestas, Paddy and Kevin like to pour salt on slugs and then give them a decent burial. They wonder why the Yankees are fighting Gorillas in Vietnam and wait to see if the teacher will use the word ‘balls’ or ‘mickey’ or ‘testicles’ in the middle of a warning about the dangers of ‘pruning’ (a game of snatching at your pal's cock through his trousers in the playground).
Paddy Clarke is a terrific creation: a juvenile sensationist with enthusiasms and ideas as quick and darting as the movement of his small feet across open grass. And all the while, the hum of his parents' crack-up presses its way into his head. No previous character of Doyle's has had this degree of interior life, nor anything like Paddy's capacity for wonder.
Not that Doyle's previous novels are at all lifeless or shy. Doyle has shown himself to be a writer who can make language dance in front of him. The three novels which make up the Barrytown Trilogy—The Commitments,The Snapper and The Van—concentrate on members of the Rabbitte family and their crowd, and each is jammed with rattling patter, with great gab and gags, with men slagging their mothers-in-law and keening to ride (or ‘roide’) brassy young girls. That's the way Doyle's men think of women and that's the way his women think of men and that's the kind of writer he is. No one writing fiction is better than Doyle at uncovering life inside council houses and getting at the buzz on corporation estates. The houses in Doyle's fiction seem magical and real at the same time: kids—all with different haircuts and hobbies—scream and beat their way up and down the stairs, traipse in and out of the back-garden, slide headlong down the banister. Look at this chaotic minute in the life of the Rabbitte family, from The Snapper:
—I spent hours making those skirts for you two little rips—
—They're stupid, said Linda.
She hadn't meant to say that. She knew she'd made a mistake but she hated those skirts, especially her own one.
The hours she'd wasted; cutting, clipping, sewing, making mistakes, starting again.
Jimmy Sr threw his knife and fork onto the plate.
—Wha' kind of a fuckin' house is this at all? he asked the table.
He looked at Veronica. She was deciding if she'd throw the marmalade at the twins …
—Hi-dee-hi, campers, Jimmy Jr greeted them all when he came into the kitchen.
—Fuck off, Jimmy Sr shouted.
One of the aces brought off by Stephen Frears in his recent film of The Snapper was to capture this household madness: a chaotic glue in which all matters—serious or trivial—are suspended. Cupboards are jammed with linen, damp towels cover the bathroom floor, siblings are torturing each other in the back bedroom, one of the twins is marching out into the garden wearing her full majorette costume and a face full of shaving foam. Meanwhile, at the kitchen table, Sharon tries to confess to her parents that she is pregnant. Such detail, in all its noisy, full-colour movement, is seldom got on film and even more rarely got in fiction.
In The Commitments,The Snapper and The Van narrative is propelled by the creation of something new—a soul band, a baby and a chip van respectively—which, for a short time, alters everyone's life. Along the way something always happens which acts as a test of people's true feelings: usually a threat of breakdown, of resentment swelling to bursting point. In The Van, Jimmy Rabbitte Sr refers to the growing resentment between him and his pal Bimbo—unemployed men who became partners in a chip van—as being ‘like a film about a marriage break-up’. It causes them to reassess their whole enterprise. The real centre of The Snapper is the point where Jimmy has to decide which of two loyalties means most to him: loyalty to his daughter, who's ‘up the pole’, or loyalty to his sense of himself, to the old-fashioned kind of man he has been until now. In The Commitments, animosity towards Deco, the singer, threatens to overwhelm the group before they strike up a single note. In the end, jealousy about who's screwing Imelda, one of the backing singers, precipitates an on-stage bloodbath.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha has no such pivotal moment. We're not with the Rabbittes, or Jimmy Jr's mental musician pals, but with the Clarkes, an altogether quieter family. And the Clarke adults—though they have their own pivotal moments and points of crisis—are somewhere in the background. Like its predecessors, the novel is driven by dialogue and firmly rooted in the Barrytown terrain. Yet it is played in a different key. The dialogue spoken in Doyle's other books is often hilarious but it is always hilarious for the same reason, for all the characters (men, women and kids) speak the same way. Young Paddy Clarke's language emerges from his preoccupations: he speaks with a voice like no one else's.
Doyle's imagined community, his little world of Barrytown, begins, with this book, to look something like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. It's a place on its own, where people work and dream and drink and worry. It's also a place where people struggle against time; a place where people think and are thought of—and all at some distance from the world outside. Paddy Clarke, with his lyrical perceptions and his mad talk, has dimensions we might recognise in Benjy, the idiot man from The Sound and the Fury. Benjy's state of mind, just like Paddy's, causes him to see and express things in a way adults don't properly understand:
Mr Patterson was chopping in the green flowers. He stopped chopping and looked at me. Mrs Patterson came across the garden, running. When I saw her eyes I began to cry … I could smell the clothes flapping, and the smoke blowing across the branch.
There are no resounding moments of revelation for Benjy or for Paddy Clarke. Small, barely discernible tragedies mingle with their play and (briefly) interrupt the flow of their senses. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha Doyle writes sentences which carry the full flavour of his character's innocence and confusion.
‘Insistence on childhood is the radical defect of most ordinary novels of today,’ Cyril Connolly wrote in 1935; and there still are plenty of novelists malingering in their childhood, rooting around for sunny days and glorious oppositions to the hard adult world. Doyle is not one of them: his triumph in this novel is to replenish our sense of how children think and speak and explain the adult world to themselves. For Paddy, as for many of us, after the long drone of adults fighting came the raw sound of them finally splitting. It all came quickly. Then there was just him, lying there thinking about what had happened:
My da had more wrong with him than my ma. There was nothing wrong with my ma except sometimes she was too busy. My da sometimes lost his temper and he liked it. He had black things across the top of his back, like black insects clinging onto him. I'd seen them; about five of them in a bendy row. I'd seen them when I was watching him shaving … He was useless at lots of things. He never finished games. He read the newspapers. He coughed. He sat too much.
That's as vivid as it ever need be. And Paddy will soon have to cope with the rhymesters in the playground: ‘Paddy Clarke, Paddy Clarke. Has no da. Ha ha ha.’ ‘I didn't listen to them,’ Paddy says. ‘They were only kids.’
Paddy Clarke, with his love of the smell of hot-water bottles and his desire to go blind and read Braille, is a narrator in whom you can trust. He realises, at the end, that his mother is not hugging him but holding onto him. When his father disappears behind the glass door, he knows he won't be coming back. My own mother for years kept a fridge the same as the one in Paddy Clarke's house: a K-E-L-V-I-N-A-T-O-R (he loves to spell it out). My father had bought it. Though he'd been gone a long time, the fridge remained, with burn marks all round the rim where he used to balance his smoking fag while cooking.
‘We got rid of the old fridge,’ my ma told me on the phone the other day.
‘Really? So what did you do with it, sell it?’
‘No. We could've got a few quid for it but, you know, we wanted it out of the way.’
‘So where is it?’ I asked, my head not quite in the present.
‘We all took it to the top of the old dump,’ she said, ‘and threw it right in.’
I pictured the old Kelvinator tumbling further and further down the hill and thought of Paddy Clarke. ‘Good job,’ I said.
SOURCE: Shepherd, Allen. “Never the Same Again.” New England Review 16, no. 2 (spring 1994): 163-67.
[In the following review, Shepherd commends Doyle's poignancy and wit in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.]
By the time I reached the end of my Spring travels I had endured a number of untoward events. Aer Lingus had lost both of my bags, leading to a substantial, unplanned investment in Irish underwear; then on a ferry across the Shannon an oil truck had rolled into and profoundly pleated the back end of my rented Nissan, leaving the car, without tail lights, illegal, and me, once more, separated from my luggage; and finally the IRA had blown up a large part of my hotel in Belfast, happily before I arrived.
All of this is to say that when I returned to Dublin for a last few days I was ready for some good things to happen, one of which turned out to be my discovery of the fiction of Roddy Doyle, most notably his latest novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. On my next-to-last afternoon in Dublin I was on my way to Eason's, the city's largest and best general-purpose bookstore, when the taxi driver, wondering what sort of book I was after, recommended I look at The Commitments, his copy of which I had the loan of for the next five minutes or so. Thus my good fortune to enter the Doyle canon at the beginning, The Commitments (1987) being his first novel. After late into the night reading, the following day I bought the rest of the oeuvre, minus two plays, to include—in addition to Paddy Clarke—The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991). What is most striking and gratifying about reading Doyle in chronological order is that each novel bears distinct resemblance to but is arguably better than its predecessor.
Doyle is a Dubliner, born there in 1958, and was a teacher of English and Geography at Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack, in north Dublin, from 1980 until his recent retirement to a full-time writing life. Native responses (both positive and negative) to his brief and highly successful career exemplify some of the alternately entertaining and less lovely aspects of literary politics in the Republic of Ireland. He sells very well, sales of each of the first three titles running to over 50,000 copies, a very substantial figure in a country of only 3.5 million people. Collected as The Barrytown Trilogy, they have been on the best-seller list for over eight months, with more than 20,000 copies sold. Doyle has in effect rewritten a number of the rules of publishing, both with the trilogy and with Paddy Clarke retailing, in Ireland only, at a special price of £9.95 (U.S. ＄14.85), essentially a soft-back price for a hardback book. The Commitments and The Snapper were made into critically successful films; The Van, shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize, is in process.
Yet it's said that when the good news regarding The Van was faxed to Dublin, one journalist at The Irish Times broke down in tears of rage. Aside from the nature of human nature, what would account for such keen dismay? In brief it is, I believe, who he is, what he writes, and how. Doyle is, it seems, insufficiently respectful to certain elements in the local literary establishment, wisely keeping his own council; he is certainly condescended to as merely entertaining, just popular and funny; he depicts life in the “blasted corporation estates,” wrote one Times reviewer, a subject which ought apparently to be eschewed; and he writes (more properly, began with) fiction composed largely of dialogue, which reads, it's alleged, like unfinished film scripts. Such commentary impresses me as fatuous and self-important. Though in what follows I will try to appear even-handed and judicious on select occasions, usually I will take the easier and more natural course, arguing the case for Paddy Clarke and, by extension, for the rest of Doyle's work.
Perhaps I should first address the novel's title, awkward sounding and looking as it is. It's taken from a child's rhyme, directed at the novel's ten-year-old narrator-protagonist, and it appears only on the next-to-last page.
Paddy Clarke- Paddy Clarke- Has no da. Ha ha ha.
The loss of the father, who finally walks out, the prospective disintegration of the family, the end of childhood and other hurts, old, sad subjects, are what Doyle makes poignant and new in Paddy Clarke.
Developing a ten-year-old narrator is immensely challenging work; Doyle is blessed with an unfailing memory, great confidence and, I imagine, the benefits of thirteen years of teacherly observation. Paddy as narrator is in fact as well done as any child I can think of in recent literature. Thus Doyle's grasp and articulation of what Paddy readily understands and works to achieve, for instance, how to please and entertain his mother; what he isn't interested in but can make some sense of, for instance, his father's enduring fondness for the TV news; what he resists acknowledging, for instance, the growing depth of his parents' rift; and what he misconstrues until it's explained, for instance, the difficulties that the Yanks are having with the gorillas/guerillas in Viet Nam. Very seldom in his careful maneuvering outside Paddy's perspective does Doyle make a false step (usually apparent in diction) and his use of irony is unfailingly delicate and affectionate.
Given the circumstances, sentimentality would affect many a lesser writer; to that inclination Doyle seems immune, though (her I am being judicious) I resist, in the novel's last twenty-odd pages, iterations of Paddy's puzzlement and unhappiness. Thus the following.
There must have been a reason why he [his father] hated ma. There must have been something wrong with her, at least one thing. I couldn't see it. I wanted to. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be on both sides. He was my da.
As the crisis approaches, things falling apart, it's credible, even inevitable, that Paddy should regularly be wracked by such thoughts; however, one reader at least is less affected the third than the first time.
It is of course natural that working- or other class-Dubliners of thirty-something, children of the 'sixties, should rediscover in Paddy Clarke much that I, a middle-class American of fifty-odd, have never before witnessed; thus, for instance, Paddy's being marched in front of the Republic's Easter Proclamation on its fiftieth anniversary in 1966, or playing games of three-in-one, a variety of street soccer, or mastering even a core vocabulary of Gaelic, or giving and, occasionally, receiving, a “dead leg,” a pain-inducing maneuver of some sort. All unfamiliar, all readily imaginable. And it is also true that the aptness and accuracy of many details I can judge from personal experience; thus although I never had occasion in fourth grade to march in place beside my desk while the master called out left, right, left, right in Gaelic, Paddy's desk itself is a perfect replica of my assigned seat in 1946, even to include the ink well and the hinged slanting desk top.
Paddy Clarke differs from its predecessors in the canon in that it is, though very funny, a far more serious book; in that it contains substantially less dialogue, though people speaking remain one of its principal pleasures; in that it displays new depths and subtleties of characterization, in a whole host of beautifully realized tiny cameos of childhood; and in that, although it seems casually put together, it is in fact very carefully constructed.
Beyond a true-seeming account of the parochial and the national, Doyle offers a feeling narrative of what it was to be ten, c. 1968, with father, mother, younger brother, two baby sisters, a best friend, school, neighbors, games—you can complete the list. It's right, for example, that where father goes off to in the morning and what he does there should never be mentioned, just as it is right that Catherine and Deirdre, baby sisters, because they are insignificant in Paddy's world, should together engross no more than two of 282 pages. “I hardly knew Catherine,” he says.
Paddy's father, after whom he's named, Patrick Clarke, age 33, in his first appearance seems to fulfill the paternal role admirably, offering his son instruction and support and sharing a private joke, yet it soon becomes clear that he's forgotten that it was he who gave Paddy the magnifying glass that so enthralls him. Patrick will later buy a car and insist on driving his family to Dollymount (to which they've often walked) in heavy rain for a miserable picnic in silence in the car, unable even to see out. And father will several times extend a hand of congratulation to his son (“Good man”) but on an infinitely sad occasion, visiting the day before Christmas Eve, after weeks away,
He moved the parcels he had with him under one arm and put his hand out.
—How are you? he said.
He put his hand out for me to shake it.
—How are you?
His hand felt cold and big, dry and hard.
—Very well, thank you.
Throughout the novel father is (and needs to be) studied in ways that mother, Mary, is not, her love being unquestioned and unstinting. Mother is “lovely,” always looks “nice,” smells of food and soap, is almost endlessly patient, hums, and tries always to understand and explain. Thus, loth to disappoint her older son, who for his own good but unexplainable reasons has asked her not to wash some dirty venetian blinds, she says,
—You have to wash things when they're dirty … D'you understand?
If I said yes that would mean more than I just understood. I said nothing, the way Sinbad [his younger brother, a.k.a. Francis] always did.
I said nothing.
—Have you any tickles?
I tried like mad not to laugh.
It is inconceivable to Paddy that da should hit ma, though he does, and across the face.
It is their son, however, whose novel this is, the rhythms of whose life the reader quickly assimilates. We see that sequences are chronologically discontinuous, as events suggest other events. Thus Sinbad is (painfully) caught on a thorn in the hedge and is next reported in the hospital, having his tonsils out, before, a paragraph later, he is burned by a capsule of lighter fluid. Paddy, it is no surprise, loves to tell stories, to see where they lead, unfurling them as invention and his audience warrant. He is bright, curious, and reflective, but not unnaturally so; he lies frequently and with considerable facility, crossing his heart and hoping to die; he is capable of real unkindness, even concerted cruelty, to his younger brother, to whom, however, in grief and exhaustion he eventually turns; he likes The Three Stooges, but is struck by the absence of any story in their performances; he admires Indians, particularly Geronimo, has his doubts about Daniel Boone (shocking spelling in “kilt a bar on this tree” and he doesn't like the looks of Fess Parker); and he enjoys playing the lead role in “Father Damien and the Lepers,” most of the dialogue for which he has committed to memory from the encyclopedia.
Paddy's neighborhood, north Dublin's Barrytown, is a new world, a playground of building sites and concrete pipes, ditches and construction workers' huts, but as a refrain has it, “Our territory was getting smaller” and … “there were no farms left. Our patch was gone, first sliced in half for pipes, then made into eight houses. … Over by the corporation houses wasn't ours any more. There was another tribe there now, tougher than us, though none of us said it.”
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha after a hundred pages or so is increasingly a tale of failures and endings. Paddy's territory shrinks, his parents' marriage breaks up, his family disintegrates. A saving presence is lost as his best friend, Kevin Conway, turns on him; a new hero, Charles Leavy, admired for his perfect self-sufficiency, expresses his dismissive distaste; and finally, at Kevin's instigation, Paddy is boycotted.
Every good fiction writer is intent on creating his or her own fictional universe, which Doyle has achieved in Barrytown. All is conveyed with total authenticity and the shock of freshness. Paddy Clarke is a fine book to read aloud, even without benefit of accent; it is original and affecting, funny and sad, not to mention (as Paddy would have it) “brilliant” and “lovely.”
SOURCE: Hutchings, William. Review of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle. World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 810-11.
[In the following review, Hutchings praises Doyle's ability to invoke the narrative voice of a ten-year-old boy in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and contends that Doyle skillfully renders Paddy's poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland.]
“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley wrote in the opening line of The Go-Between (1953); “they do things differently there.” This observation applies not only to the collective or societal past but to the individual and psychological past as well: childhood remains—to a remarkable degree—an unexplored territory whose inhabitants have a culture comprising intricate customs and codes that are uniquely its own, seldom recorded or analyzed, usually forgotten in adulthood. Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, winner of the 1993 Booker Prize, is a child's-eye view of working-class life in Ireland in the late 1960s, a deft first-person narrative from the point of view of a ten-year-old who describes vividly the day-to-day cares of his boyhood world as well as his contacts with the adult world he cannot always understand. As such, it not only painstakingly evokes the particularities of its time, place, and class but also transcends them, recapturing both the wonder and the perplexity that are experienced before one nears the borders of adolescence and the far stricter boundaries of adulthood.
Unlike the decidedly adult narrative voice in Hartley's novel or in James Joyce's “Araby,” for example, Paddy Clarke's is distinctively that of a child—naïve in many ways, direct and idiomatic in its simple-sentence style (similar to that of the first chapter of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and without precise indicators of the passage of time. Alternately comic and poignant, the novel is remarkably detailed in its portrait of the complex codes of boyhood: the rules that govern seemingly rough-and-ready play, the often gratuitous cruelties, the bonds of loyalty, the secrets and rituals that define status and power among peers. Like Alan Sillitoe's Key to the Door (1961), which detailed its protagonist's childhood in working-class Nottingham in the 1930s, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha offers an unsentimental depiction of its grimly urban environment; construction sites are its playgrounds, and through the streets and shops the boys rove, fight, play, and sometimes plunder. Amid myriad details, an increasingly serious subtext can be found in the domestic silences and muffled arguments that Paddy finds inexplicably troubling and beyond his control: the words of his parents' marital discord are stifled whenever he is known to be within earshot. By the novel's end, Paddy has become sadder, wiser, more mature, and more alone—though not entirely by choice.
Best known as the author of The Commitments and The Snapper, both of which have been made into critically acclaimed films, Roddy Doyle has chronicled the working-class world of Barrytown with insight and wry humor. This novel, though relatively plotless in comparison to its predecessors, is nevertheless more masterful in its point of view, having so effectively simulated and sustained the narrative voice of a child. Along with the riotously picaresque first-person narrative of Ceremony of Innocence (1992) by Doyle's fellow Dubliner Anthony James Cassidy, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha evokes the innocence and ingenuities of a modern urban preadolescent, a voice largely unheard in serious fiction heretofore.
SOURCE: Doyle, Roddy, and Colin Lacey. “Roddy Doyle: Ruffling Feathers, after a Booker.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 13 (25 March 1996): 55-6.
[In the following interview, Doyle discusses the controversy surrounding his television mini-series Family, his novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and his affinity for writing new novels featuring characters from previous works.]
Given Ireland's pride in its artists, it's an alarming and bizarrely incongruous vision: Roddy Doyle, author of the 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, successful screenwriter and one of the country's most popular contemporary novelists, slips furtively through the streets of his native Dublin, anxious to avoid the remote but worrying prospect of physical attack from a seriously aggrieved public.
The first episode of Family, a harrowing, four-part television drama scripted by Doyle that graphically probes domestic violence and spousal abuse in a working-class Irish household, aired on national television in the summer of 1994, causing an immediate uproar. RTE, Ireland's state-operated broadcasting authority, was inundated with calls, most challenging the veracity of the material and castigating Doyle, author of a hugely popular clutch of comedic, family-centered novels, for daring to perpetrate a calculated slight upon the character of the Irish family. The series was addressed in the Dail (roughly the Irish equivalent of Congress), occupied inches of newspaper and magazine columns and was debated at length on every radio and television chat show in the country. In delineating the brutal vocabulary of marital violence in a representative Irish setting, Doyle had exposed a tender national nerve, and much of his audience was displeased.
“I had won the Booker Prize with a rather charming little book, I'd been given a sort of knighthood in Ireland and was something of a little hero,” explains Doyle, whose new novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, out in April from Viking, revisits Family's bleak social landscape and develops the story of Paula Spencer, the series' battered, 39-year-old mother of two. “Then comes Family, which is grim and sordid and violent, and it really shocked people because domestic violence is one of the great secrets of Irish society, and we'd much rather not have to admit it occurs.
“Going down to the shops to get the milk the day after the first episode was a bit of a struggle,” he adds, smiling, but only half-joking. “I was waiting for a car to skid to a halt behind me and to be hit by a hammer or something!”
Eighteen months later, the dust, both accusatory and sympathetic, has settled. But is Doyle about to aggravate his audience again? The Woman Who Walked into Doors—the title alludes to a common euphemism used by victims of domestic violence—traces narrator Paula's coming-to-terms with a 17-year marriage of violence, abuse and alcoholism. It represents a significant departure from the relative optimism and edgy, frequently scatological raillery of Doyle's previous urban narratives. Undaunted by the Family affair, however, the author contends the book is a natural progression from The Commitments,The Snapper,The Van, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The shattered beings of the new novel are “the flip side of the Rabbittes,” Doyle says, referring to the disorderly but endearing family of his first three books.
“I didn't set out to write about domestic violence but I felt there was a whole lot more to Paula Spencer than what was on the screen in Family,” he says. “I could imagine her, once she's gotten control of her life, joining a literary group or something and writing her own story. I thought it would be great for her to try and get back and ‘account for’ her life, to try to answer that question that must infuriate victims of domestic violence: Why did she get involved with such a brutal man in the first place?”
AN ANTI-FAMILY SUBVERSIVE?
Now 38, Doyle is the very antithesis of the fanatical, anti-family subversive many critics declared him after Family. A soft-spoken, amicable father of two, he relaxes into a chair at the Dublin offices of his manager, John Sutton, and maintains the emphatic demeanor of an individual accustomed to an attentive audience—the fruits, perhaps, of 14 years spent teaching English and geography at a Dublin school. Sporting a single gold earring and marine-tight buzz cut that suggest less an ex-educator than a streetsmart urbanite from one of his own novels, Doyle is quick to smile and displays an open and disarming sense of humor. He ignores the dramatic posters trumpeting his Booker victory from the office walls and entertains PW with the dispassionate air of a veteran interviewee.
The third of four children, Doyle grew up in Kilbarrack, a solidly working-class district north of Dublin's city center that would later serve as a prototype for Barrytown, the fictional locale of his first three novels. Qualifying as a teacher, Doyle began work in the same school he had attended as a youth, a stone's throw from his family home. He was, he says, “a fair, but strict teacher,” and enjoyed the work. But, inspired by fellow teacher and playwright Paul Mercier, he made use of the generous vacation time afforded Irish educators to begin writing.
Commentators later cited his teaching career—which he quit the day Paddy Clarke was published—as the major source of his work, but while acknowledging its incidental influence, Doyle dismisses the suggestion that his writing taps directly into his classroom experience.
“I think it's true to say that without teaching, I would never have written The Commitments,” he says. “I was confronted day to day by these kids and I tried to imagine them a few years on, without parental or teacher supervision. But after that, teaching became less important. Paddy Clarke, for example, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my being a teacher, despite what everyone says.” The literary inspiration, says Doyle, was the Richard Ford novel Wildlife, in which “a 40-year-old looks back to when he was 16 and his parents' marriage was falling apart. Also, my first child was born and, in anticipating his future, I began to think about my own childhood in a way I hadn't done for years, and all these wonderful images and memories came back to me. If you have to simplify things, they're the two reasons I wrote that book. Not because I was a teacher.”
A SELF-PUBLISHED DEBUT
Doyle completed The Commitments, a rags-to-riches comedy about a Dublin soul band, in 1985. In 1987, smarting from rejections for a previous, still unpublished book, Doyle formed King Farouk Publishing with Sutton, a friend since university, for the sole purpose of publishing The Commitments. Three thousand copies of the novel were issued. It sold well in Dublin and beyond, thanks to strong word of mouth and enthusiastic reviews in local papers. Doyle forwarded copies and reviews to all the British publishers he knew, and the DIY approach paid off: Dan Franklin at Heinemann signed him and published The Commitments in the U.K. The novel became the first in a sequence familiarly known, and eventually published, as the Barrytown Trilogy.
“One book grew out of the other really,” says Doyle. “Sharon Rabbitte [sister of the protagonist in Doyle's debut], has only one line in the first book—‘go and shite!’—but I thought, ‘here's a good woman!’ and it struck me as a good idea to write about her becoming pregnant in The Snapper. Then, as I was writing, her father became a more important character and began to take over the book in many ways, so I decided there was a book in him too. The Van came out of that and it just happened to be three books. I fought the idea of calling it a trilogy at first, but the books are actually at home together.”
By the time The Van was completed, Doyle had gathered a significant following, particularly among young, urban readers—he groans audibly when reminded he was hailed by some critics as a spokesman for Irish 20-somethings. “I'm a spokesman for nobody except myself—and even then I'd get a third party to speak on my behalf!” He had also begun a career as a screenwriter, receiving a co-writer's credit on Alan Parker's 1991 film version of The Commitments and completing the screenplay for Stephen Frears's 1993 screen version of The Snapper.The Van, also directed by Frears from Doyle's script, will be released later this year. But filmwriting remains a secondary career, and Doyle considers himself a novelist who happens also to write screenplays.
“Ideally, I like working on two things at the same time,” he says. “I was working on the screenplay for The Van while I was writing the new book, and it was a good antidote because with a screenplay, the work is not as intense at all. Often it's just a question of fleshing out the treatment and putting in the dialog.”
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha marked Doyle's first move away from Barrytown and the Rabbittes and, behind its charming, nostalgic veneer, hinted directly at some of the darker themes his newest work displays. The novel, also his first foray into first-person point of view, examined a 10-year-old narrator's growing understanding of his parents' marital difficulties. Characteristically, Doyle downplays the importance of the Booker Prize to his career.
“I don't want to be dismissive, but on one level, it didn't mean a hell of a lot. For example, Paddy Clarke will be translated into 21 different languages, but the bulk of the contracts had been signed before the Booker. Foreign translations haven't made an enormous impact financially anyway, but where the Booker has made a difference is that the first time I went to the States there were very few newspapers interested in talking to me. Afterwards, I was talking to all of them, so the books were more prominent in the shops.” (The recent excerpt from the new novel in the New Yorker may be further evidence that Doyle has achieved greater recognition in this country.)
Doyle is equally dismissive of suggestions that the Booker brings pressure to repeat the successes of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. His British editor, Dan Franklin, whose faith in The Commitments Doyle rewarded by following him from Heinemann to Secker & Warburg and finally to Jonathan Cape, is a stabilizing factor: a book-by-book contract grants Doyle complete freedom to write without interference and at his own pace. The arrangement works both ways, however, Doyle says—his publishers receive thoroughly edited manuscripts that need little further polishing. He claims, in fact, that the editing work with Franklin on The Woman Who Walked into Doors lasted only two hours. Doyle's editor in the U.S. is Caroline White. Doyle notes that John Sutton also acts as his “manager” here, dispensing with a need for a Stateside agent.
As for the new novel, Doyle says, not without a degree of relief, that he is certain it won't prompt controversy on the scale of Family. His confidence is such that he is already considering another Paula Spencer book.
“I think Paula is a wonderful person, and although the subject matter insists hers is a dark book, she is actually a very funny woman with a great sense of sarcasm,” he says. “I'll probably let her be for another five years or so and then come back and see how she's coping with the rest of her life. I've always wanted to write a love story, and that might be the opportunity.”
Then again, Doyle's idea of a love story is certain to have a disturbing, rough-and-tumble side. And one suspects that he'll only be content if it ruffles a few feathers along the way.
SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Taking a Battering.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4854 (12 April 1996): 24.
[In the following review, Broughton examines the patterns of abuse and their effect on the protagonist in The Woman Who Walked into Doors.]
Even before the massive success of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle's 1993 Booker Prize winner, he had become a household name, bringing a new virtuosity to Dublin bar-room repartee. In his latest book, Doyle could scarcely be accused of playing to a winning formula. Gone is the gallery of rascally kids, tarts with hearts and game, foul-mouthed old bollixes. Gone too are the set pieces: the world set to rights over a plate of egg and chips and an episode of The Virginian; the glorious pintfests down the Hikers bar. The Woman Who Walked into Doors is a darker work, punctuated not by Doyle's characteristically racy dialogue, but by long interior monologues in increasingly harsh monotones. Here, jubilant drinking is replaced by wretched drunkenness, quick-fire banter by quick-fire fists. Where the Barrytown of The Commitments,The Snapper and The Van was exuberantly guileless, and Paddy Clarke's childscape was precariously guiltless, the world of Doyle's new novel seems never to have had much innocence to lose.
“In the wars again” is what they say in Casualty: a non-question for which the non-answer is an apologetic “Fell down the stairs” or “Walked into the door”. Paula Spencer, the woman who walked into doors, has been married for eighteen years to Charlo, lovable rogue and not so lovable wife-beater. In that time, she has walked into a great many doors, not to mention cigarette stubs and boots. The novel opens with the announcement that Charlo, whom Paula had finally thrown out a year earlier, has been shot dead by the Gardai during a bungled robbery in which a bank manager's wife has been taken hostage and killed. Dividing her time between her work as a cleaner, her children and the vodka bottle, Paula struggles to make ends meet and to defend her children from the effects of her drinking; to piece together Charlo's last hours and her own obliterated past.
The war that Paula is in is a private one: private not because it doesn't show (she routinely sports black eyes and broken teeth), but because the world chooses not to see. She becomes the invisible woman, even to herself. The invisibility of Paula's private war contrasts tellingly with—and in a curious way implicates the reader in—the spectacular “real” wars she witnesses on the television: the Troubles (“Charlo was big into the Hunger Strikes”); the Gulf War (“Charlo loved that war”); the sufferings of Sarajevo. As the story reaches its bloody climax, we hear Patrick Mayhew on the radio talking about the economic benefits of “the end of violence” in the North. Paula's story is one bitter palimpsest of the more legible conflicts going on around her.
Paula will be familiar to many readers as the wife and mother in Doyle's controversial short sequence of television dramas, The Family.The Woman Who Walked into Doors is a reworking of The Family from Paula's viewpoint: an attempt to render three-dimensional a character much vilified at the time of screening as downtrodden and ineffectual, and as complicit in the brutalization of her household. Of all the horrors exposed by the series—incest, brutality, addiction, dereliction—Paula's failure to act seems to have stirred most revulsion. The questions left open in The Family and addressed here, are why Paula would go with the appalling Charlo in the first place, and why would she then stay? Doyle has set himself two daunting tasks: evoking the enduring glamour of a man who “wouldn't cross the road to please anyone”, and explaining the psychology of a woman who won't cross the threshold to save herself and her family.
Punch-drunk, or just plain drunk, Paula meanders through her past, offering us glimpses of her childhood, her courtship and marriage. These early chapters, though often sombre, retain Doyle's tonal buoyancy, his affection for the rhythms and vitality of ordinary life. Here we meet Paula's houseproud sister, Denise, who gets even tidier when she's drunk (“I've seen her rearranging chairs and tables in the pub when she's pissed enough”); Miss Travers the Domestic Science teacher (“mad as shite”) who looks on helpless as Dympna McQuaid grills a salad in front of the Group Cert inspector. Here the irrepressibility of Paddy Clarke, the joyous insouciance of the Barrytown trilogy come briefly to the fore.
Paula herself has her hour of glory in the undivided attention of the sexy Charlo who has a black bomber jacket and a seductive way with a cigarette. He loves her, we are continually told, though from the start he has an odd way of showing it. Charlo takes her to meet his family, then leaves her, drunk, disoriented and with a full bladder, to the tender mercies of his intimidating mother. Escaping seconds too late, Paula wets herself in the Spencers' bathroom, has to throw her knickers out of the window to dispose of the evidence. Love as abandon. A little later, Charlo proves his devotion by eating his chips out of Paula's knickers (“I had to marry him after that”). Her underwear, we begin to suspect, is having more fun than she is.
Once married and pregnant, Paula discovers the dark side of Charlo's impulsive nature: “He lost his temper. And he hit me. He lost his temper. It was as simple as that. And he hit me.” Pain and the fear of pain gradually take over Paula's life. At the same time, they take over the novel itself. As memory, imagination, humour and sympathy all capitulate, one by one, to the single fact of being hit, the reader is left wondering whether this implosion, this collapsing of perspective and distance, is the best way to explain, much less to reclaim, Paula Spencer.
The ten-year-old Paddy Clarke also told a tale of marital strife and domestic violence. There, however, the breakdown of the marriage was tracked obliquely, and recounted with the same grim tenderness—the abstract curiosity almost—that a child would dedicate to the progress of a particular bruise on the shin:
I went into the kitchen. I was alone. The noises were all upstairs. I slapped the table. Not too loud. I slapped it again. It was the right type of sound. It was duller though, hollow. Maybe it would be different from outside. In the hall where I'd been. Maybe he'd done that, smacked the table. … That was alright. I did it again.
Like most of us, Paddy Clarke is eager to fall in with more comfortable versions of events, and only after a long struggle concedes that “My da had more wrong with him than my ma”. His da, after all, never finishes games, has a hairy back and moods. The point is this. The abuse is no less abusive, the wounds no less painful, for the wincing humour with which they are recalled. The Woman Who Walked into Doors starts out from the same awkward angle:
I knew nothing for a while, where I was, how come I was on the floor. Then I saw Charlo's feet, then his legs, making a triangle with the floor. … His face was full of worry and love. … You fell, he said.
The line of vision is just oblique enough to let us kid ourselves for a while. But the passage is repeated and repeated again; the moment is elaborated and rehearsed. The violence, we learn, is always unexpected, unpredictable; it is this quality of systematic randomness that makes it work. For it is not about need or disagreement or even about conflict but about power. He does it because he can. She will feel isolated and demoralized and have no self-esteem. “There wasn't one minute when I wasn't afraid, when I wasn't waiting. Waiting for him to go, waiting for him to come. Waiting for the fist, waiting for the smile.” As episode succeeds violent episode, the psychology of domestic violence is hinted at, then sketched in, then spelled out, and finally, needlessly, hammered home. Doyle hectors us with explanations. The author's determination to understand is palpable on every page. For that reason, perhaps, the prose is frequently effortful, even leaden—an earnest mixture of Al Anon testimony and consciousness-raising.
The fine line between “poignant” and “pathetic” is familiar to any reader of feminist writing over the past twenty-five years. No attentive reader of Alice Walker, Marge Piercy, Pat Barker, or of Dublin's Leland Bardwell, could remain in ignorance of the plight of battered wives. These writers have not, needless to say, succeeded in stopping wife-battering. They have, however, taken awareness and understanding into popular culture. These days you don't need to be a feminist sociologist, or a Roddy Doyle, to know how domestic violence works. You just need to watch Brookside.
Yet as these women writers have found, “inertia as resistance” is in some ways inimical to narrative, to the novel form itself. Doyle knows this, of course. He has given us some strong, static, aggrieved women, but they have tended to stay on the margins of the fiction: powerful monitory presences at the edge of the action. The long-suffering Veronica Rabitte, unsung heroine of both The Snapper and The Van, could express a world of exasperation and defeat in the way she picked up her glasses or put down her knitting. But she was a force to be reckoned with. Charlo's mother, the massive and magnificent Gert, makes afternoon tea look like armed combat:
When she'd finished piling the sandwiches—they were like a block of flats—she held them down like they were trying to escape and sliced through them with one lunge of the bread knife. … She had the teapot now. She came towards me. For a second I thought she was going to skull me with it.
We learn more about female strength from a couple of meetings with Gert than we do from pages of dutiful attention to her daughter-in-law. (When Paula does finally fight back, it is with a heavy, old-fashioned frying-pan, a hitherto unwanted gift from Gert. “Maybe there was a secret message in it all along.”) For the most part, Paula's own tactics of resistance don't bear the weight of scrutiny. “She manages, she's a survivor”, she says of her thirty-nine-year-old, alcoholic self. Perhaps so. But hers is a wan, theoretical kind of survival: a victory on paper.
SOURCE: Prose, Francine. “Molly Bloom Said ‘Yes,’ Paula O'Leary Says ‘Maybe.’” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 May 1996): 3, 8.
[In the following review, Prose asserts that The Woman Who Walked into Doors is both poignant and realistic, extolling Doyle's ability to narrate a story from a woman's viewpoint.]
Reading The Woman Who Walked into Doors, one almost can't help making chilling comparisons between its tough, buoyant narrator and James Joyce's Molly Bloom. In his new novel, Roddy Doyle (author of The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, winner of Britain's Booker Prize) has given us another powerfully memorable Irish woman soliloquizer.
Like the soaring voice that keeps echoing long after the last lines of Ulysses, Doyle's Paula Spencer is at once ordinary and mythical, lyrical and gritty, down to earth and so much larger than life that her personality keeps spilling over the boundary between the spiritual and the carnal. But the differences between these two female characters are profoundly disturbing, and readers may find themselves contemplating the drastic changes that have taken place in women's lives, or perhaps just in the quantities of hard truth that writers feel allowed—or compelled—to tell about the harrowing struggles for survival that so often pass for domestic routine. Unlike Molly, who ends her reverie with that oceanic yes, Paula recounts a disturbing, painful and frequently hilarious personal history that is, at its most joyous, more appropriately an occasion for a highly qualified maybe.
While Molly moves toward an affirmative celebration of the life-force and of sex, Paula has learned that romance can be the start of catastrophic problems. At moments, she steps back from her narrative to speak of herself in the third person, with a devastatingly unflinching view of her present situation: “She'll be 39 in two months' time. … See her when she's getting out of bed and she'll look 50. She's an office cleaner; she gets two-fifty an hour. She does houses as well in the morning. … She has four children. She is a widow. She is an alcoholic. She has holes in her heart that never stop killing her. … She isn't too fond of herself but she isn't so certain that she's stupid anymore. She manages; she's a survivor. She has loose skin on her arms but her neck is still all right.”
And yet Paula's boiled-down summary of her life leaves out much that is important—the energy, complexity, depth and detail that make The Woman Who Walked into Doors so convincing and impressive. As Doyle's brief narrative progresses by association from the past to the present, from the concrete to the abstract, from the gently comic to the tragic and terrifying, we feel Paula working—overtime, as it were—to bring order to her chaotic recent experience and to find some meaning and even hope in her own thoroughly unextraordinary but wholly singular story.
The book's first sections move so swiftly—and deliver so much information with such economy and compression—that we may quickly (and wrongly) come to believe we know all there is to know about how the girl, Paula O'Leary, developed into the married woman and mother, Paula Spencer. Despite what Paula's sister says (one sub-theme of the novel is the difficulty of ever determining exactly how and why things occurred), Paula had a happy childhood: “When I think of happy and home together I see the curtain blowing and the sun on the wall and being snug and ready for the day, before I start thinking about it like an adult. I see flowers on the curtains—but there were never flowers on the curtains in our room. I asked my mammy when I was over there last week did we ever have flowery curtains and she said, No, they'd never changed them, always stripes.”
But the humiliations of a school staffed entirely with vicious and incompetent teachers undermine the solid identity that Paula has brought from home, and all she learns from her classes is that the surest way to be someone is to wield her sexual power over the equally hapless boys. But even that fragile margin of influence is sacrificed the instant she meets Charlo Spencer, the dangerously charming young man she eventually marries: “I'd loved him before I even met him and I never stopped. The minute I saw him, before I saw his face properly. I knew what being in love was. It was dreadful.”
And dreadful it certainly is: After a blissful honeymoon and before the birth of their first child, Charlo begins drinking heavily, reverting to the thieving ways that run in his family and beating Paula severely. Not until she sees Charlo's aggression beginning to focus on their daughter does Paula find (with the aid of a heavy frying pan) the strength to throw Charlo out. Soon after, he is killed while involved in a particularly ugly kidnapping and murder; the novel opens with the scene in which a young policeman arrives to tell Paula that Charlo is dead.
Only in its penultimate sections, when Paula describes her own feelings of guilt and responsibility for the beatings she's received, is the novel marred by the faintest tinge of the sociological and the generic. (True or not, it's what we always hear about battered women, and for a moment we feel quite cut off from Paula's bracingly unsentimental, no nonsense individuality.) But throughout the rest of the book, we never doubt for a moment that we are hearing the utterly plausible, articulate voice of a woman—a character with first-hand knowledge of what it's like to inhabit a female body. (One of the novel's most moving passages describes the moment when Paula's mother suddenly notices that her young daughter has grown breasts.)
For all its harrowing intensity, The Woman Who Walked into Doors is a pleasure to read. It's beautifully written, sympathetic and gifted with that narrative authority we expect from first-rate writers. And in the era in which one still hears discussions about the absurd question of whether it's permissible or even possible to write from the point of view of the other gender, Doyle's novel will—one hopes—help resolve that debate. It reminds us of how some of fiction's most unforgettable women were created by men: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and now that foul-mouthed, lively, immensely endearing survivor: Paula Spencer, Molly Bloom's sadder and wiser younger sister.
SOURCE: Cosgrove, Brian. “Roddy Doyle's Backward Look: Tradition and Modernity in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 85, no. 339 (autumn 1996): 231-42.
[In the following essay, Cosgrove contrasts traditional Irish ideology and modern Irish thought in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, comparing Paddy Clarke's childhood and subsequent loss of innocence with the young adults in Ireland who embrace modern ideals and pop culture.]
ENGAGING WITH IRISH MODERNITY: DOYLE AND THE NEW DUBLIN SUBURBS
One of the major difficulties in any attempt to interpret the work of Roddy Doyle is that he appears to have no clear ideological position. That there should be no authoritative narrative ‘voice’ is not unexpected: readers of Irish fiction, tutored by Joyce (himself tutored by Flaubert), have long been accustomed to such an absence. Doyle's neutrality of presentation, however, seems even more extreme. His novels, omitting as they do almost all reference to the inner psychology of the characters, and heavily reliant on social interaction as dialogue, can readily be compared to film scripts or screenplays: which is to say, that his characteristic procedures have all the apparent neutrality of audiovisual technology. Not surprisingly, his works have not only been successfully adapted for the screen (the most famous instance being The Commitments), but have appeared to find a fuller ‘realisation’ in that medium than on the printed page.
What all of this suggests is that Doyle's realism should be seen as being of the ‘I am a camera’ variety: his initial purpose is social documentation rather than cultural analysis (of the kind, let us say, that is always richly implicit in the otherwise comparably neutral Joyce in, for example, Dubliners). ‘I am a camera’, though, is perhaps less appropriate than the alternative ‘I am a tape-recorder’: for what Doyle sets out to capture is, in a phrase that gave the title to a journalistic piece by Fintan O'Toole, ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’1. Doyle himself, moreover, has in interview been highly explicit in acknowledging this documentary impulse: if his work, he says, is ‘nothing else’, it ‘might just be a record of just how certain people in Dublin spoke …’2
Yet it is in precisely this focus on the contemporary Dublin suburbs that readers and critics have found that ideological implication that the studied neutrality of presentation might seem to deny. On the one hand, Doyle will claim that he is merely ‘telling it like it is’:
I just write about people, generally they're from working-class backgrounds and I describe the worlds that they come from. If people would prefer that the working-class characters were more political or more noble, perhaps, frankly, fuck them, it doesn't worry me in the least3.
Yet when, in another interview (with Eileen Battersby)4, Doyle declares that he is not interested in ‘Bord Failte's Ireland’, then he is inviting ideological definition. The Ireland of the Irish Tourist Board is a glamourised, idealised, romanticised Ireland usually envisaged in pastoral and pre-industrial terms: as such it relies on non-urban imagery and ignores the raw modernity of contemporary Ireland as that is experienced by the majority of the Irish population (who now live either in a city or in the sprawling suburbs that extend the conurbation into the surrounding countryside). In rejecting Bord Failte's Ireland, Doyle is rejecting an Ireland ideologically constructed in terms of traditional sentiment (an Ireland we might characterise as pastoral), and embracing the reality of Irish modernity.
Commentators have been quick to point out, in some detail, the implications of this shift of focus not just in Doyle but in other contemporary Irish writers. Fintan O'Toole, writing in 1992 (though without specific reference to Roddy Doyle), characterised the recent suburban developments in Dublin as places which lack all history. Dublin, he wrote,
now exists largely at its own extremes. … the new suburbs have been voraciously eating up the surrounding countryside. New places have been born, places without history, without the accumulated notion of Irishness that sustained the State for seventy years. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are more important in the new places than the old Irish totems of Land, Nationality and Catholicism.5
Thus, in choosing as his centre of concern the new places ‘without history’, the Dublin suburbs, Doyle implies an ideological stance: and, in a reading facilitated by O'Toole's general statement, becomes one of those disaffected Irish moderns who reject ‘the old Irish totems of Land, Nationality and Catholicism’.
This is doubtless a useful and pertinent contribution to the interpretation of Doyle's work, and it is perhaps inevitable that he should be read in these terms: yet the reduction of Doyle's text (specifically, in this context, the text of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) to any such formulaic reading tends to ignore the possible tensions in that text with regard to tradition and modernity in contemporary Ireland. In both his texts and in interview, Doyle projects the image of a hard-boiled urbanist, who is telling his readership (especially his Irish readership) to wake up, come to terms with contemporary realities, embrace modernity and move beyond the stereotypical images of Ireland that belong to a moribund tradition. I want here to argue, however, in the first instance, that the text of Paddy Clarke is torn between the sense of loss arising from the awareness of a vanished past, and the recognition of the inevitability of a necessary submission to the (possibly impoverished) present. In the second instance, and as an extension of this, I want to interpret Paddy Clarke as, above all, a version of pastoral nostalgia, looking back, with its own muted but undeniable Sehnsucht, to a lost innocence that refers both to the immediate family unit (the Clarkes), and to the broader cultural context.
A PERSISTENT SENSE OF NATIONAL IDENTITY
If one approaches Paddy Clarke expecting a work which deals straightforwardly with contemporary working-class suburbia, a kind of neutral zone that might belong to any late twentieth-century city in western society, then much of the writing seems initially to confirm that expectation. Doyle's minimalist style steers deliberately clear of specific reference and sets the scene in the most nondescript terms:
We were at the building site. The building site kept changing, the fenced-in part of it where they kept the diggers and the bricks and the shed the builders sat in and drank tea. There was always a pile of bread crusts outside the shed door, huge batch crusts with jam stains on the edges.6
Such a building site could be assigned to any one of a number of locations not just in Ireland but in the British Isles, or further afield. Small wonder that when Liam and Aidan inform Paddy that their uncle Mick ‘had a barn like Donnelly's barn’, they are quite unable to give specific details of its location:
—Where? I said.
They didn't know.
—Where is it?
(PC [Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha], 12-13)
Yet if the locations remain non-particularised, the text as a whole cannot entirely exclude other specifics of a cultural nature. The barn belongs, after all, to the Donnellys; the boys are Liam and Aidan. All of these names are cultural indicators of a particular Irishness: and besides Paddy, Liam and Aidan, we hear of Sean, Fergus, Kevin. The extent to which these names in addition implicate the idea of tradition is debateable: but as readers of Yeats (and of some of Stephen's citations in Joyce's Ulysses) will know, Fergus was the name of the ancient king of Ulster (found in the Red Branch cycle of tales), while Kevin was one of the most prestigious of medieval Irish saints (associated with Glendalough in Co. Wicklow). Whatever the author's conscious intention may have been, textuality in the form of these Irish names accommodates a cultural resonance that cannot be ignored.
Perhaps even more notable, though, is the unforeseen fracture of the text into bilingualism as phrases in Irish are casually introduced by the primary schoolteachers. Both Henno and Miss Watkins not only issue routine orders in Irish (‘Seasaigi suas’), but communicate with the students in more elaborate Irish sentences. Miss Watkins brings in a copy (on a tea-towel) of the Irish Proclamation of Independence of 1916 and repeatedly invites the boys' admiration with ‘Nach bhfuil se go h'alainn, lads?’ (PC, 20). These phrases are, of course, carefully translated into English at the foot of the page: a cultural necessity dictated not only by the cosmopolitan nature of the book's target readership, but also, the contemporary Irish reader will wryly reflect, by the inadequate knowledge of Irish in the Irish readership as well. Nonetheless, the Irish phrases are vividly and troublingly present in the text, and, in the case of Miss Watkins, are appropriately used to introduce (in 1966, fifty years after the Easter Rising) a copy of the Proclamation of Independence: which, however commodified (and perhaps debased) as a reproduction on a tea-towel, still records the highly evocative words of the declaration, and the equally evocative names of the signatories (including P. H. Pearse and James Connolly). Reminders of Ireland's cultural and historical past, indeed, proliferate as one reads through the text7. We are repeatedly directed to the recent and not so recent Irish past: Captain Boycott (PC, 275-76), the Anglo-Irish War, or Ireland's War of Independence (PC, 30), Ireland's policy of neutrality during the Second World War (PC, 25).
The reason for dwelling upon these Irish cultural signifiers is that they reveal that, in Paddy Clarke at least (set significantly, of course, in the more distant 1960s), Doyle's immediate immersion in a bleak modernity is repeatedly challenged by the alternative mode of reminiscence. In a recent article in The Sunday Times, Irish journalist Kevin Myers pondered the social changes in Ireland which have led Ireland into modernity and away from such traditional allegiances as the Catholic Church:
The country has changed enormously … Unmarried teenage motherhood is an accepted condition [and was, of course, the main subject of the second novel in Doyle's Barrytown ‘trilogy’, The Snapper], especially on the satellite estates around Dublin, which mirror equivalent locations in Britain. Their residents will watch the same television programmes, give their children the same names, such as Wayne and Sharon, eat the same diet, support the same English football clubs, wear identical clothes and like the same rock bands.8
But, as we have already seen, in the 1960s Barrytown evoked in Paddy Clarke, the names are not yet Wayne and Sharon, but Fergus and (PC, 4) Deirdre. The point is that, in the case of Paddy Clarke, the very choice of a period some three decades ago opens the way to retrospection and a nostalgia that is wholly absent from, for instance, Doyle's contemporaneous television series, Family.
It remains true, nonetheless, that the cultural icons available to the youngsters growing up in the Dublin suburbia of the 1960s are often more evidently modern and British (or multinational) than traditional and Irish. Kevin Myers is right about the support for English football clubs: Paddy Clarke supports Manchester United, and his footballing hero is George Best—not, be it said, because Best was born in Ireland (Belfast), but because he plays for Paddy's favourite English team (‘I'd seen a colour picture of him once in a green Northern Ireland jersey, not his usual red one [i.e., the Manchester United colours], and it had shocked me’ (PC, 136, italics added): so much for ‘the wearing of the green’). Other cultural signifiers point to a broad Anglo-American influence, much of it available through the media of film and television: Red Indians, Napoleon Solo (in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Geronimo, Daniel Boone, the American TV show Hitchcock Presents, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, John Wayne movies, and so on (PC, 7, 11, 24, 54-55, 56-57, 77, 89, 119). These are listed in no particular order, apart from the sequence of their appearance in the text, in order to highlight the sense of heterogeneity or confusion generated by this spate of cultural referents9: a confusion further compounded when these are juxtaposed with the Irish cultural signifiers mentioned earlier.
There is one point later on in Paddy Clarke when this cultural confusion seems to be epitomised in the bi-lingual naming of the newly-created roads in Barrytown. One road is called Chestnut Avenue: ‘It was in Irish as well, Ascal na gCastan’. There follows a neutral comment which can become as loaded as we wish to make it: ‘The turns off Chestnut Avenue didn't make any sense yet. You couldn't tell what shape it was all going to be when it was finished’ (PC, 246-47). The socio-cultural future, it may be, is equally confused and uncertain, a shapeless something that cannot be envisaged. Moreover, cultural heterogeneity can generate not only confusion but an unresolved tension which might at times rightly be called post-colonial in character. When he reads the famous William books by English author Richmal Crompton, Paddy Clarke reveals an ambivalent odi-et-amo attitude, at once admiring and yet (in his deft parody of English speech mannerisms and style) mocking:
William the Pirate was the best. I say! gasped William. I've never seen such a clever dog. I say! he gasped, he's splendid. Hi, Toby! Toby! Come here, old chap! Toby was nothing loth. He was a jolly, friendly little dog.
We might in part explain the tension here in class terms only (lower-class fascination with and mockery of middle-class gentility), but the Irish reader, whether or not s/he is familiar with Joyce's ‘Oxen of the Sun’, will inevitably sense a conflict between nationalist periphery (seeking to appropriate/destabilise the language of the colonist) and a cultural centre still dominant (or threatening to remain so) even in a post-imperialist phase.
The choice of wording here, and the introduction of the term ‘nationalist’, is deliberate: for it makes it possible to modify the general claim by Fintan O'Toole (cited earlier) that in the new suburban estates (of which the fictional Barrytown might be seen as representative) the traditional Irish totems of Nationality, Religion and Land have, at best, a merely vestigial presence. For it is certainly the case with Paddy Clarke that nationality continues to feature as one of the major cultural factors in a confused situation: both the Irish language, and the related cultural signifiers, are constitutive of what it seems appropriate to term Ireland's ‘macaronic’ condition. On the linguistic level, the macaronic confusion is most in evidence in the role adopted by Kevin in the brutal ceremonial game whereby each of the boys must utter a genuinely ‘bad’ word or obscenity, or else fall victim to Kevin's swishing poker. ‘I am’, says Kevin, ‘Zentoga, the high priest of the great god, Ciunas’ (PC, 129). ‘Zentoga’ seems straight out of Hollywood kitsch, but ‘Ciunas’, curiously (and imaginatively), is the Irish word for ‘Silence’. Obviously, Irish traditional culture (and the Irish language) can barely compete with the forces of modernity: yet they remain sufficiently vigorous to create the macaronic effect, which is to say that their presence problematises what would otherwise be a more straightforward presentation of modernity. The macaronic, as a literary form, has an interesting history: the term is usually applied to a kind of burlesque verse mingling modern words with Latin, the effect of which, linguistically, is a destabilising one, especially when the vernacular words are given Latin or other foreign terminations (or, more loosely defined, the macaronic is a form involving any mixture of languages). The normative mode of expression, whether patrician Latin or vulgar vernacular, is troubled and in part subverted by its incompatible linguistic other, providing an apt epitome of cultural confusion and tension: and in modern Ireland a similar effect may be generated by the mingling of Irish and English.
A LOST HERITAGE: CATHOLICISM AND PASTORAL NOSTALGIA
Thus far, the argument has been (pace Fintan O'Toole) that in Paddy Clarke at least Nationality has a sufficiently vigorous life to trouble the text and to complicate it in the manner described as ‘macaronic’. What one may now proceed to argue is that a similar case can be made for the real and active presence in Paddy Clarke of those remaining two totems in O'Toole's trinity of evanescent Irish cultural forces, Catholicism and Land.
The world of Paddy Clarke is one which, if not entirely saturated with references to religious practice and icons, is certainly thoroughly permeated by them. Young Paddy accepts attendance at Sunday mass as the norm; the conventional picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is on display in the parents' bedroom; in accordance with the Church law regarding abstinence from meat, fish is the dinner dish on Fridays (PC, 37, 38, 63); and Paddy displays a degree of theological sophistication (and inclusiveness) in his account of Limbo (‘Limbo was for babies that hadn't been baptised and pets. It was nice, like heaven, only God wasn't there’: PC, 86). Paddy's mother makes sure that he follows the Church rule about fasting at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion (PC, 154); and in one of the most poignant scenes in the novel, Paddy, convinced that if he can stay awake he can prevent the fighting between his parents, compares his vigil to that of ‘St Peter when Jesus was in the Garden. St Peter kept falling asleep, but I didn't, not even once’ (PC, 232).
Familiarity, of course, may breed contempt: and somewhat sacrilegiously the boys appropriate Catholic beliefs and practices for their games and pastimes. Thus, in a Viking funeral for a dead rat (the boys have recently seen the movie, The Vikings), Paddy incongruously assumes the role of Catholic priest and leads off the recital of the Hail Mary (PC, 74). Or religion may be treated with irreverent humor: as when Paddy's father (who is typically more anti-religious than his mother) comes up with a deflationary riposte when Paddy is showing off his familiarity with the New Testament:
—The Holy Family went to Egypt when Herod was after them.
—That's right [his father replies]. There's always work for carpenters.
In the next breath, however, Paddy's father can raise a central and serious theological question: ‘Some people believe that Jesus was the son of God and others don't’ (PC, 27). A similar complication occurs in Paddy's fascinated account of the life of Father Damian of leper colony fame. In the middle of his narrative we have this:
Bits of the lepers fell off. That was what happened them. Did you hear about the leper cowboy? He threw his leg over his horse.
Yet the fact remains that, for a time at least, Father Damian can take his place in Paddy's pantheon, however oddly he consorts with more secular heroes like Geronimo and George Best.
The argument here is not that Paddy Clarke is honouring or celebrating Irish Catholicism, but that (like Nationality) Catholicism is sufficiently acknowledged to trouble an otherwise univocally secular text. There are, in consequence, some vaguely perplexing passages, where a certain tension between sacred and secular insinuates itself, however fleetingly:
It was the Easter holidays. The sky was all blue. It was Good Friday. The roads were cement, all the roads round our way, the parts that hadn't been dug up. The roads were cement and the tar went between the slabs of the cement.
Arguably, the blank featurelessness of those concrete roads (signifying nothing) is all the more deeply registered because they are juxtaposed with the evocation (weak or casual) of a day in the Church calendar which once had real significance: although, in putting it in these terms, one is perhaps making too forcibly explicit what exists in the first instance as a mere textual tremor.
Those roads of tar and cement, in any case, raise the possibility of the relevance to Doyle's novel of the third of Fintan O'Toole's three totems, viz. Land. The concern here, however, is not with Land as the personal property of the assertive individual who erects a personal identity, or defines himself, in relation to that land, but rather with land as a pastoral resource fast disappearing under the rapid expansion of the city and the creation of new satellite housing-estates. Right from the beginning, the ‘building site’ (PC, 2) is a pervasive feature of young Paddy's environment, and the landscape is in a constant state of radical alteration: as in the central episodes where the ‘old railway bridge’ is replaced by ‘a new one, made of huge slabs of concrete’, and farmland has been appropriated by the builders in preparation for a major development (PC, 111, 115). What is most striking in Paddy Clarke's recounting of these changes is the poignant sense that something precious has been lost: ‘The old bridge was gone … I missed it. It had been a great place for hiding under and shouting’ (112-13). Even more vivid is Paddy's account of how he runs in glorious freedom through that part of the farmland which, in spite of the fact that the farmhouse itself is now a ‘wreck’ (115), has remained ‘untouched’:
I ran through the untouched part of the field—for no reason, just running—and the grass was great, up to way over my knees. I had to lift my legs out of it, like in water … My feet made swoosh noises going through the grass and then there was another noise, one in front of me. And the grass moved. I stopped, and a long bird flew out of the grass. And stayed low, flew out in front of me. I could feel its wings beating. It was a pheasant.
The implications of this should be clear. The writing at this point is, especially for a stylistic minimalist like Doyle, unusually lyrical, and is evocative in a richly pastoral way. What is being celebrated is an older, more innocent order which is fast disappearing under the encroachments of modernity in the shape of bleak ‘concrete slabs’ and extensive housing estates. And what is repeatedly insisted upon is the acute sense of loss, as, again and again, Paddy refers to the disappearance of ‘territory’:
We were in the field behind the shops, in away from the road. We hadn't as many places as before.
Our territory was getting smaller. The fields were patches among the different houses and bits left over where the roads didn't meet properly. They'd become dumps for all the waste stuff … They were good for exploring but bad for running in.
(146: emphasis added)
This is not quite paradise lost, but the inhibition of running clearly indicates a loss of spontaneous freedom. And if we can come to accept that the expansive building-programmes may be a synecdoche for modernity in general, then we may begin to interpret Paddy Clarke not as an unambiguous acceptance of the modern and the urban, but as a text deeply troubled by the recognition that the price of modernity is high, and entails the loss of a recent past in which the individual could feel more happily at home, and more surely in touch with a self ‘innocent’ in its natural spontaneity.
PARADISE LOST: THE FATE OF PERSONAL AND CULTURAL INNOCENCE
The final point to be made is that this powerful sense of a happier environment in the past in which the individual was more fully at home duplicates, or is duplicated by, the main narrative development. The main narrative concern is the gradual disintegration of a marriage: the fights between Paddy's mother and father become more and more frequent, and more violent, until, with both parties beyond the point of reconciliation, his father walks out. What this means for young Paddy is not only the loss of the domestic security he yearns for, the unavailability of a real ‘home’, but also, in his implication in his parents' quarrels and his feeling of responsibility for preventing them, a rapid and traumatic development out of childhood innocence into a more mature and problematised consciousness. The growing awareness brings with it an unresolvable sense of conflict and confusion: ‘I didn't understand. She was lovely. He was nice. They had four children. I was one of them, the oldest’ (PC, 222). The child then tries to adjust his loyalties with reference to the two (now separate) claimants, but if she is ‘lovely’ and he is ‘nice’, how can he characterise one of the two as a villain and repose on the traditional assurance of black-and-white morality? If one of them has to ‘go under’ in this protracted battle, which of the two should it be? Most likely, Paddy reflects, it would be ‘my ma’. But ‘I wanted it to be my da. He was bigger’. Yet, confusingly, ‘I didn't want it to be him either’ (PC, 256).
One of the most affecting passages in Paddy's memory of his home-life highlights once again that nostalgia for a lost happiness that belongs to the recent past. Paddy recalls the sense of security that his younger self had found under the living room table:
I fell asleep in there; I used to. It was always cool in there, never cold, and warm when I wanted it to be. The lino was nice on my face. The air wasn't alive like outside, beyond the table; it was safe. It had a smell I liked10… I woke up once and there was a blanket on top of me. I wanted to stay there forever. I was near the window. I could hear birds outside. My da's legs were crossed. He was humming. The smell from the kitchen was lovely; I wasn't hungry, I didn't need it. Stew. It was Thursday. It must have been. My ma was humming as well. The same song as my da. … It didn't sound like they knew they were humming the same thing.
The former harmony between mother and father, in tune with each other without even being conscious of it, is beautifully caught: the child is securely immersed in what Thomas Mann famously termed (in Tonio Kroger) ‘the bliss of the commonplace’, a nexus of familial activities that assures by its familiarity. But this version of blissful security is situated in a happier past that can now be accessed only through nostalgic recall: ‘That was before my mother had Cathy and Deirdre [the two youngest children]’ (104). We are dealing, once more, with a low-key version of paradise lost: and in general terms the main narrative development reinforces the pastoral theme of past innocence and present woe, of lost simplicity and current confusion and complexity11.
CONCLUSION: A RELUCTANT MODERNITY
Roddy Doyle is notorious for the strong language his characters use: that language seems to function as an index of the toughness they require in order to survive in the raw suburban environment in which they live. But the rough language also functions as a guarantee of the author's bona fide authenticity: he is no sentimentalist, is under no illusions, will tell it like it is. In that regard, the rough language indicates, both in fictional characters and in the author, an honest acceptance of the bleakness of modernity, and a refusal to yearn beyond the limits of a world which, if it is impoverished, is never overtly declared to be so. There is no open complaint: Doyle's characters, for the most part secular beings surviving in a world that is, at best, neutral, will take their satisfactions where they may, sustained by a kind of unformulated stoicism.
Yet a closer reading of Paddy Clarke at least would challenge that version of Doyle's achievement. There is much pain and casual brutality in the world it depicts; yet Paddy Clarke, for all its uncompromising realism and generally unromantic stance, is still ghosted by the memory of a past, both cultural and personal, in which things were not just different but possibly better. It may be the case that cultural traditions, which sustained the recent past, have grown effete or moribund, or have altogether disappeared; but modernity is haunted by a strong sense of lack of something missing, of painful vacancy. It is this dilemma which generates the powerful nostalgia in Paddy Clarke: caught between the futility of moribund tradition and the bleakness of contemporary culture, one recourse is to recall the happier possibility that was, or, more pointedly, that might have been. Such a possibility, forever evoking a correspondent Sehnsucht, is always available to a human imagination that can never quite suppress either its nostalgie du paradis or its implicitly utopian desire for a better world.
See The Irish Times, 31 Aug. 1991, ‘Weekend’ section, p. 8.
Cited, with the permission of the author, from an unpublished thesis by Niall McArdle, ‘Community/Family/Individual: A Reading of Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy’ (1994), p. 9. The interview took place in March, 1994.
Ibid., in McArdle, p. 7.
See The Irish Times, 20 May 1993, p. 10.
Fintan O'Toole, ‘Introduction’, in Dermot Bolger, A Dublin Quartet (London, etc.: Penguin, 1992), p. 1.
Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1993), p. 4. Hereafter abbreviated PC and cited parenthetically with page numbers.
For example, the boys hack down the nettles with a swing of their ‘hurleys’, the playing-stick used in the ancient Irish game of hurling (PC, 9: the first of a number of references to the Gaelic Athletic Association, followed by ‘Artane Boys Band’ (14), ‘the gaelic [football] pitch’ (41), etc.).
See The Sunday Times, 19 Nov. 1995, ‘News Review’ section, p. 5.
Note also the frequent introduction of trade-names as a reminder not just of widespread commodification but of the polysemous nature of multinational capitalism: Toffo, Adidas, Lego, Ambrosia Creamed Rice, Clarnico Iced Caramels, H.B. (ice-cream), Persil, Lyons Green Label, Angel Delight (PC, pp. 2, 30, 33, 37, 39, 110, 155, 156, 175). Introduced in the first instance in the interests of sociological ‘realism’, terms such as these are in addition culturally semiotic and contribute to the effect I later call ‘macaronic’.
It is difficult to affirm with any confidence that there is a reminiscence here of the opening page of Joyce's Portrait, but there are some interesting similarities in the phrasing. Doyle's ‘cold/warm/smell’ recalls: ‘When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell’ (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Seamus Deane (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 3).
Declan Kiberd has described Paddy Clarke as ‘a book which evinced a nostalgia for the 1960s in which it was set and at the same time checked that tendency with a portrait of a disintegrating marriage’ (Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation London: Jonathan Cape, 1995, p. 611). It should be clear that in the present reading the cultural nostalgia and the presentation of marital breakdown are not, as in Kiberd's formula, opposed, but are regarded, rather, as cognate evocations of lost or evanescent value.
SOURCE: Keen, Suzanne. “Irish Troubles.” Commonweal 123, no. 17 (11 October 1996): 21-3.
[In the following review, Keen comments that Doyle's strength lies in his ability to propel narratives with dialogue, but maintains that the story of The Woman Who Walked into Doors cannot adequately be told solely with dialogue.]
I have read each of Roddy Doyle's novels (The Commitments , The Snapper , The Van , and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha ) with increasing enjoyment and admiration, so it is with real disappointment that I must report that in The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Doyle reaches the limits of his technique.
The topic of the novel commands the reader's attention: thirty-nine-year-old Paula Spencer, a working-class Irish-woman, recalls as much as she can about eighteen years of abuse at the hands of her husband Charlo. Doyle does not make Paula a cut-out martyr: she struggles with alcoholism; she continues to find her brutal spouse sexually attractive despite his repeated attacks on her. Doyle indicts the doctors, nurses, neighbors, and family members who accept Paula's lame excuses, the “walking into doors” of the title, but he does not entirely exonerate his protagonist of a dangerous reticence. Indeed, the reader may wonder why it takes her so long to pick up the frying pan. The somewhat sensational fate of Charlo, killed by the police as he ineffectually flees a murder-scene, Doyle handles without melodrama. Yet the deliberately disordered storytelling, jumbled up to mimic Paula's patchy memory, the repetitions, and the unvaried rhythm of the prose make a novel that ought to be riveting into a boring book. I find it strange to be bored by a novel about pain, especially since the story Doyle tells contributes to the exposure of the scandalous epidemic of violence against women.
Paula's voice, in which the entire novel is related, combines convincing staccato storytelling, slangy working-class diction, frank revelations, and agonized reconstruction of the past in sometimes profane and often touching tones. Here Paula remembers her teen-aged self, both attracted and repelled by the man she will so disastrously marry:
He was a ride. It was the best way to describe him, from the first time I heard of him to the last time I saw him. He wasn't gorgeous. There was never anything gorgeous about him. When we made love the first time in the field when we were drunk, especially me, and I didn't really know what was happening, only his weight and wanting to get sick; I felt terrible after it, scared and soggy, guilty and sore. It would have helped if he'd been gorgeous, like Robert Redford or Lee Majors. They'd have picked me up and carried me home; they wouldn't have fucked me in a field in the first place, not one of the fields where I came from that weren't really fields at all, just bits left over after the building was finished. Charlo stood up.
I do not doubt the authenticity of this voice, and I admire the evocation of poverty not only in the setting—the leftover fields—and in the man's callous remark, but in the woman's denuded vocabulary of desire: he's a “ride,” he's not “gorgeous.” In the ensuing sections Doyle succeeds in showing the gradual increase in Paula's realism about her husband, as she ceases to “make him nice” retroactively. The terse concluding remarks of the novel, after Paula has finally driven Charlo out of the house, represent a triumph: “It was a great feeling. I'd done something good.”
Perhaps because for the first time in this novel Doyle limits himself to a woman's perspective, critics have celebrated his taking “a daring step in a new direction,” as the publicity for the novel cheers. (Doyle's success with a woman's voice will not surprise readers who recall the pungent utterances of Sharon in The Barrytown Trilogy.) Yet I think that in The Woman Who Walked into Doors Doyle takes his customary radical limitation of perspective in a rather more predictable direction, one that ultimately hinders the effect of the book. Doyle's early novels rely very heavily on pure scene, in which dialogue rather than inner thoughts dominates. The Commitments reads almost like a screenplay. (Perhaps for this reason it is an example of that rare phenomenon, a novel improved by being rendered in film—in Alan Parker's 1991 movie of the same title.) The Booker Prize-winning novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha explores with remarkable subtlety the development of a small boy's interiority and empathy, as he simultaneously masters language and discovers a new understanding of pain. Paddy's experience of pain becomes more complex as the inevitable break-up of his parents grows nearer, and he gains the capacity to imagine, rather than simply enjoy what he calls “the crunch of someone else's pain.” A turning point in the novel occurs when Paddy overhears his father slapping his mother; that single off-stage blow oddly seems more painful to this reader than the horrific catalog of injuries in The Woman Who Walked into Doors. In Paddy Clarke, the rigorous confinement of the fiction to the child's mind and voice works because he is both victim and witness, and because the reader can always see a bit more rapidly than he does what the signs and portents Paddy records really mean. This gives the novel a sense of foreboding that The Woman Who Walked into Doors entirely lacks.
Paula Spencer is a trickier kind of witness: one who has blacked out and been knocked unconscious too often to tell her story “straight.” Unlike Paddy Clarke, she has no special affinity for language. That limitation of perspective means that we cannot see what the doctors, nurses, and relatives see, or fail to register. Further, it means that Charlo remains just as much a cipher to us as he is to his wife, who, after battering him with a frying pan, still registers his charms: “His hair hung over his face and for a second he looked funny and lovely.”
The impoverished explanation for Paula's over-long patience with her abuser is twinned in the novel by a complete lack of interest in Charlo's motivations. All we know is that he's great in the sack (he improves after that first encounter in the fields), that he drinks, and that he comes from an abusive family himself. Though these bare facts may agree with the sociological picture of an abuser, they do little to augment Doyle's detailed choreography of the method of Charlo's beatings. He hits her. He hits her and kicks her. He hits her and knocks her teeth out. And so forth. The resulting monotony of action poses a narrative problem that I had always imagined was particular to what my dad calls “shattering-glass epic” movies. They've crashed the elevator, and escaped the bus, so now they have to wreck a subway train! The repetition of action demands an escalation that is distasteful, in this case, to desire. Because Doyle lets us know from the start that Charlo has died, and because he takes care to present his characters and their worsening situation without any glamour, his readers are left with a relatively simple story portraying a victim. Nothing wrong with that. I believed in Paula the imaginary human being enough to feel appalled for her. But as Elaine Scarry observes in The Body in Pain, pain obliterates language. The paucity of Paula's language, a direct consequence of Doyle's rigorous technique, ultimately makes her story tedious to read.
SOURCE: Henry, Rick. Review of The Woman Who Walked into Doors, by Roddy Doyle. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 282-83.
[In the following review, Henry expresses dislike for the protagonist of The Woman Who Walked into Doors but praises Doyle's skill and adeptness for creating an engrossing and realistic story.]
Roddy Doyle's fifth novel [The Woman Who Walked into Doors] concerns the life and love of Paula Spencer, a thirty-nine-year-old woman, alcoholic, mother of four (her fifth, a miscarriage the result of her husband's fist to her stomach), cleaning woman, widow. Paula tells her own story, a telling made possible by the violent death of her husband. She “isn't too fond of herself,” nor is this reader. True, her perseverance is admirable and her situation pitiable. But this self-described “girl who wanked” a young boyfriend is hardly a likable narrator.
The novel opens with the arrival of a young member of the Guard who has the unfortunate job of informing Paula that her estranged husband, Charlo, has been killed while holding a woman hostage during an attempted robbery. As this drama unfolds, so does Paula's life story, from her childhood through her teens and her rebellion against her family, to her introduction to Charlo, their courtship and eventual marriage. Doyle deftly manages the two narratives so that Paula and Charlo's honeymoon is ominously juxtaposed against Charlo's brutal murder of his hostage. His death allows Paula to talk about her marriage, about the seventeen years she endured under Charlo's violence, until she finally struck back, not for herself, but to protect her daughter from her husband as he turns his violence toward her. The threat he poses to Nicole is enough for Paula to drive him, stumbling and barely conscious, into the street and out of their immediate lives. Doyle is savvy enough to mine the depths of this victory, for it comes with its own costs—the possible alienation of her son, who witnesses the brutal beating of his father. Nor is this the only violence perpetrated by Paula. The novel opens with a brief aside from Paula about how she herself hit Nicole.
Early reviews of the novel have lauded Doyle for his ability to give voice to Paula Spencer, that is, Doyle's ability to efface his (male) presence in his female narrator's voice and sensibilities. What they've noted is true enough, for Doyle has demonstrated yet again his mastery of voice and character. But his achievement goes well beyond his own self-effacement. What is overlooked is how he constructs his narrative to overcome what we already know—that we will, inevitably, get to what the title promises—documenting the narrator's physical abuse at the hands of her husband. How is it, then, that Doyle is able to sustain the reader's interest and effort necessary to completing such a story? Much of the interest lies in discovering just what Paula is up to as she tells her story. Is she rewriting history to exculpate herself? Is she telling the truth? Is her confession therapeutic? Most likely, she is discovering herself through the patient exposing of self-deceptions, tricks and games that she's developed over the years just to survive.
The Woman Who Walked into Doors follows his 1993 Booker Award winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, a novel of seething emotion and coming of age, and his Barrytown Trilogy,The Commitments,The Snapper, and The Van, which follow the Rabbitte family through the good fun of drinking, burping, farting, rock and roll, teenage parenthood, and economic depression. Like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Doyle's latest is not so fun as his earlier three, nor should this be a surprise. It is, however, a compelling exploration of the dark undercurrents informing all of Doyle's fictions.
SOURCE: Piroux, Lorraine. “‘I'm Black an' I'm Proud’: Re-inventing Irishness in Roddy Doyle's The Commitments.” College Literature 25, no. 2 (spring 1998): 45-57.
[In the following essay, Piroux discusses the characterizations in The Commitments and investigates the Irish working-class protagonists' similarities to the oppressed African American culture of the 1960s.]
In recent years Irish artistic productions in literature and popular culture have challenged contemporary revisionist readings of Irish history by engaging again with the issue of nationalism. Against today's prevailing climate in historical discourse where Ireland's colonial experience is deliberately overlooked, major intellectual and artistic achievements have taken place: founded in 1980, the Field Day publishing, theater, and critical enterprise led by Seamus Deane has focused its attention on the political crisis in Northern Ireland, a conflict viewed as symptomatic of Ireland's unresolved colonial situation.1 Field Day's playwrights such as Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, and Tom Paulin have thus made political explorations of Ireland's colonial crisis the main theme of their work. Jim Sheridan's movie In the Name of the Father has also brought to the fore and with great international success the scandals of British anti-terrorist repression in the northern province.
Despite the impact of such productions in Ireland and abroad, the majority of the younger generation in the Republic of Ireland has become by and large indifferent to the northern crisis. The general disaffection among young people today vis-à-vis party politics and its century-old debate on nationalism has generated much concern in Irish political life.2 At the turn of the twenty-first century, Irish youth seems to have surrendered its elders' allegiance to the national identity shaped by the political and literary establishment of the early years of Irish independence. Instead, expressions of identity in popular culture are now reaching outside of Ireland for global connections with the racially and economically oppressed, thereby undermining the possibility of a specific Irish identity.3
In the work of Roddy Doyle, Ireland's most renowned contemporary writer, there are no explicit references to an Irish national consciousness or an Irish identity of the kind that had informed Irish writings since the early years of the independence movement. Doyle's first novel, The Commitments (1988), suggests on the contrary that Irish identity does not exist in and of itself but springs from variegated possibilities of transnational solidarity with the disenfranchised. Being Irish, his young protagonists contend, is synonymous with being Black because oppression is the only reality that makes the notion of identity meaningful and can account for what it means to be either Irish or Black. Thus Irishness is never fully realized in Doyle's writing, nor is it in the slightest way represented in metaphorical, symbolic or even descriptive narratives. It is in fact the very notion of identity, I argue, that Doyle's minimalist writing deconstructs when he uproots Irishness from those historical and narrative conventions which had served the interest of Irish nationalism earlier in the century. Irishness in The Commitments is no longer a matter of definition or semantics since Doyle does not ask what it means to be Irish. Rather, identity manifests itself in the sheer intensity of the dialogues, the slang, and the lyrics of blues and soul music. Such obliteration of historical and cultural values on which traditional concepts of identity are forged has been described by Deleuze and Guattari as a practice of “deterritorialization.” My analysis of The Commitments will show that when Doyle inscribes identity within the plain language of soul and slang, rather than upholding a full-fledged depiction of Irishness, he precisely sets out to deterritorialize ethnic difference so as to re-invent identity as an on-going process of hybridization. This is not to say, however, that Doyle effaces ethnic difference entirely from his treatment of Irishness. In fact, to inscribe Irishness within blues and soul music, I further argue, is to retain the memory of a specific colonial discourse that had constructed a common ancestry for the Irish and the African-Americans and had represented both groups with similar attributes of primitive barbarism. It should come as no surprise, then, that singing and playing soul music enable Doyle's young protagonists to articulate identity in political terms according to both local and global realities of oppression without falling into the trap of essentialism.
The Commitments tells the story of young Jimmy Rabbitte's attempts to form a working-class soul band and bring the passions and politics of James Brown to Barrytown, Dublin, and more generally to Ireland.4 In spite of the phenomenal success Doyle's work has enjoyed both at home and internationally, his depiction of the Barrytown microcosm—loosely based on the economically depressed urban area of Kilbarrack located on the northside of Dublin—has been severely criticized for distorting a harsh economic reality through comical lenses and most importantly, for failing to provide a narrative of Ireland's social uniqueness.5 At the heart of such criticisms lies a conception of Irish literature that still owes much to earlier literary attempts at defining an Irish national character: born at the time of the struggle for independence, Yeats' famous Literary Revival movement required that Irish literature be committed to defining an Irish essence carved out of a Gaelic mythical past. In this respect, Doyle's literary world could only disappoint the literary establishment since it “has no metaphors, no natural world, no history” (O'Faolain 1992, 3).
Indeed, the legacy of Yeats's nativism is so deeply rooted that contemporary writers are, as Terence Brown suggests: “asked to reflect quite specifically on their intuitive sense of the substance of Irish identity” (1985, 322). Brown further remarks that many writers felt disinclined to do so, choosing instead to offer “experimental works … which suggested the complex, variegated, transitional nature of contemporary Irish experience” (322). On the one hand, Doyle is clearly such a writer: what he describes as “spare writing” implies avoiding a discourse of mastery on what constitutes Irish identity (Walsh 1990, 39). Perhaps his most original piece, The Commitments is a hybrid genre that looks more like a movie script than a novel. It consists almost exclusively of dialogues. Seldom is the text intersected by the voice of a narrator. Never does this narrator corroborate or dispute the legitimacy of the band's political mission. Relying on the systematic use of slang and soul music borrowings, Doyle shuns the representation of a specific Irish content.
On the other hand, Doyle maps out a politics of liberation that keeps Ireland's post-colonial predicament very much at the forefront of The Commitments. It is symptomatic that Joey the Lips, the band's key player, convinces Jimmy Rabbitte early on of his commitment to Dublin soul by evoking the Troubles in Northern Ireland: “the feuding Brothers in Northern Ireland … needed some soul. And pretty fucking quick! … The Brothers wouldn't be shooting the asses off each other if they had soul” (1991a, 26).6 My argument here is that although Doyle does not engage explicitly with Irish nationalism as Field Day writers would, his writing challenges the rhetoric of colonialism and its post-colonial sectarian consequences. My reading of his discursive discretion vis-à-vis Irishness and of his exploration of soul culture shows that an Irish identity no less attentive to its past history can be preserved if conceived as a creative politics of solidarity rather than as a revival of a mythic and totalizing tradition.7 With Jimmy's “soul politics,” we move from “politics” as an exclusionary national agenda to the more fundamental notion of “the political” which permeates subjectivity and its relations to human communities. In other words, Doyle's construction of Irish identity in The Commitments testifies to the fact that, in Edward Said's words, “moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive” (1993, 229).
What exactly does Jimmy's soul politics consist of and what do “The Commitments” commit to? A connoisseur of pop music, Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., is recruited as manager by aspiring musicians forming a band. He soon persuades them to abandon the band's original name “And And exclamation mark” for a name that rings true to the spirit of Soul: “The Commitments.” That naming of the band inaugurates the subsequent moves by which Jimmy, conceiving of his role as a political mission, converts his friends to the world of soul. As he explains in the opening pages of the book, “The Commitments'” music will be about:
—sex an' politics … Real sex. Not mushy I'll hold your hand till the end o' time stuff.—Ridin', fuckin'. D'yeh know wha' I mean? …
—Wha' abou' this politics?
—Yeah, politics.—Not songs about Fianna fuckin' Fail or anything' like tha'.
Real politics. (They weren't with him.)—Where are yis from? (he answered that one himself.)—Dublin. (He asked another one.)—Wha' part o' Dublin? Barrytown. Wha' class are yis? Workin' class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah yis are. … Who buys the most records? The workin' class. Your music should be abou' where you come from an' the sort o' people yeh come from.—Say it once, say it loud, I'm black an' I'm proud.
They looked at him.
—James Brown …
They were stunned by what came next.
—The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads.
They nearly gasped: it was so true.
—An' Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. … An' the northside Dubliners are the niggers o' Dublin.
(Doyle 1991a, 9)
Bold and convincing, Jimmy's rhetoric is, on the discursive level, also highly economical: it derives its effectiveness from a rapid metonymic slide associating Irishness, Dublinness and Blackness without substantiating these notions. For Jimmy and the band, soul politics is self-explanatory, for it suggests at once class awareness, racial, and sexual emancipation. But it is the word “nigger,” appropriated as signifier for radical difference, which conveys the thrust of Jimmy's rationale. In itself the term subsumes the other aspects of Irish alienation and eclipses the necessity of argumentation. One should wonder, however, why the truth of Jimmy's slogan strikes the band so plainly despite an absence of supporting evidence.
Of course, such a slogan implicitly evokes the commonality of minorities' experience in their struggle against oppression. In their influential work, The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (1990), Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd have explored the possibility of theorizing the common nature of minority experiences. Against the stereotypes imposed by dominant ideologies on minorities, they remind us that “‘becoming minor’ is not a question of essence … but a question of position: a subject-position that in the final analysis can be defined only in ‘political terms’” (1990, 9). If the band's politics, however, arise out of an implicit recognition of their own “minor” subject-position, their complete appropriation of soul cannot be solely justified on the grounds of a similarity of experience with Afro-Americans. By listening to soul, watching soul, acting soul as the body language of soul musicians is studied and reproduced, and even eating “soul food” (28) (or Jaffa cakes, standard tea cookies in Ireland), Jimmy and “The Commitments” are literally working to acquire a soul habitus:8 “Deco was on a strict soul diet: James Brown, Otis Reading, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. James for the growls, Otis for the moans, Smokey for the whines and Marvin for the whole lot put together” (31). Ultimately, Dublin idioms are woven into the lyrics of soul. The Commitments' dedication to soul thus overrides the recognition of sharing with Afro-Americans the same negative subject-position since their political self-assertion implies full appropriation of soul beyond the metaphoric level.9 If The Commitments can acquire soul culture so readily, is it not because a residual sameness between Blackness and Irishness is assumed? In fact, Bourdieu's habitus can explain how practices are re-produced only by implying the existence of a tradition as well as historical continuity. To a large extent, Jimmy's soul politics is already grounded in Ireland's colonial tradition and involves more than a matter of position: it is inscribed in the embattled field of ideological essentialism which needs to be further examined.
A too-often forgotten feature of Irish colonial history, Said reminds us, is the extent to which “a whole tradition of British and European thought has considered the Irish to be a separate and inferior race, usually unregenerately barbarian, often delinquent and primitive” (1993, 236). More specifically, a closer look at historical sources reveals that very early on, the Irish were identified as being essentially black and were incriminated with the same stereotyping rhetoric used against people of color. That identification is epitomized in Edmund Spenser's famous 1596 View of the Present State of Ireland in which he uncovers an African ancestry for the Irish through methods of comparative anthropology:10 “There be other sorts of cries also used amongst the Irish which savor greatly of Scythian barbarism, as their lamentations at their burials … [this custom is] altogether heathenish, brought in first thither by the Scythians or the Moors, which were Africans, but long possessed that country” (1970, 55-56). After Spenser, the theme of an Irish blackness perpetuated itself into a tradition of its own. Significantly, its use has not remained the prerogative of colonial power. In 1927, F. R. Higgins published a book entitled The Dark Breed in which the legacy of the Literary Revival and its vision of the heroic ancient Gael still maintained its hold. In Higgins's words, the blackness of the Irish is no longer a matter of racial lineage but has become a question of actual skin pigmentation: “The racial strength of a Gaelic aristocratic mind—with its vigorous coloring and hard emotion—is easily recognized in Irish poetry. … Like our Gaelic stock, its poetry is sun-bred … the eyes of Gaelic poetry reflect a richness of life and the intensity of a dark people, still part of our landscape” (1927, 91). Today, blackness has again switched valence on the battlefield of essences building around itself yet another sectarian mythology, this time specific to the northern crisis: in Catholic vernacular, “black” is used pejoratively to mean “Protestant” as in for instance “a black town.”11 With the neighbor state proclaiming its uniqueness in religious terms as “the defender of a pious and chaste race in a degenerate and promiscuous world” (Deane 1990, 13), it is little wonder that the Catholic minority in the North represents Protestant otherness according to the Spenserian notion of barbarism.
That imperial nativism gave rise to an escalating war of stereotypes is well-known in post-colonial histories. The Negritude movement, for instance, was quite successful in its efforts to revalorize the negative value that colonialism had imposed on “blackness.” But by the same token, this reversal of values meant reducing African identity to a monolithic and impermeable otherness. In fact, in most formerly colonized nations, cultural distinctiveness manifested itself as a self-conquering strategy over the other's domination. And for those who resisted British imperial domination, nativist essentialism was first and foremost an act of cultural repossession before it asserted the radical difference of the Irish. The 1880's Literary Revival was such an attempt to rescue an uncontaminated Irish past from colonial history by cultivating literary and cultural motifs that served the interest of a distinctively Irish national consciousness. These poets, playwrights, folklorists, and historians who returned to a mythical Gaelic past conceived of their work as the reclaiming of a national culture that several hundred years of British domination had obliterated. But because the repossession of Irish identity consisted of a mere reversal of values, it shared a common epistemology with western imperialism: the images of the Irish that were forged to counterattack the dominant stereotypes were endowed with positive values but they were, in effect, no less stereotypical. To understand the pertinence of Jimmy's soul rhetoric, however, is to measure the extent to which it departs from a similar tradition of essentialism shared by both dominant and resistance discourses.
Against this background, Doyle appears conspicuously silent in his treatment of Irish Blackness. Jimmy's slogan “the Irish are the niggers of Europe” merely spurs the band's plunge into the world of soul without subsequent return to the Irish question. In his text, nativist mythologies, narratives of national character and liberation are non-existent (Elided as well are “realist” descriptions of the Barrytown urban landscape. The fact that for Dubliners today, the Dublin northside or Kilbarrack is synonymous with “working-class” allows Doyle to landmark fictitious Barrytown as a working-class community without resorting to representation). In short, what Doyle avoids is narrative investment in Irish identity. Doyle himself describes that economy of writing wittily as follows: “An awful lot of dialogue, and an awful lot of gaps. Oh, and when in doubt, say F[uck]” (Walsh 1990, 39-40).12 Clearly, what one might call the under-determination of Doyle's writing in fact appears radically strategic when confronted with the epistemological investment brought upon “Irish blackness” by both colonialism and nativism. In his chapter on “Yeats and Decolonization,” Said cogently describes colonial achievements in epistemological mastery as follows: “Eurocentric culture relentlessly codified and observed everything about the non-European or presumably peripheral world, in so thorough and detailed a manner as to leave no item untouched, no culture unstudied, no people and land unclaimed” (1993, 222). It is remarkable that Doyle's characterization of Irish writing bears a striking resemblance to Said's analysis: “There's something about Irish writers, the minute they turn a corner they have to describe everything they see in front of them” (my emphasis) (Walsh 1990, 39-40). For this overdetermination of the Irish terrain, Doyle substitutes an economy of writing that reclaims a plural Irish self precisely by avoiding repossession and reinvestment. With The Commitments, Irish Blackness is stripped of its previous genealogical, anthropological, biological, and racial determinations. Doyle's treatment of Irish blackness in fact amounts to a deterritorialization, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari, of the tenacious tradition of sectarian identifications in which it is inscribed. For deterritorialization not only characterizes the relations of a displaced community to the centers of power, it also affects expression within the language of power itself. Deterritorialization occurs within a dominant language when its signifying process is altered by a certain writing practice. Writing then ceases to be primarily symbolic and representational, drawing instead its power of expression from an intensive and material use of language. To deterritorialize a language, Deleuze and Guattari explain, is to renounce traditional frames of reference according to which meaning is produced and to uproot language from its cultural determinations by radically impoverishing both syntax and lexicon. In a gesture not unlike Samuel Beckett's minimalism which sought to estrange English from itself by means of extreme linguistic sobriety, Doyle's writing seeks to dis/locate language from those signifying processes (symbolism, mythologies, descriptions, etc.) by which a national Irish identity had traditionally been produced.
Perhaps the most important effect of racial determinations is that they have crystallized in totalizing discursive conventions. (“codify everything” and “describe everything” Said and Doyle write respectively). It is no wonder then that the deterritorialization of Irish identity should occur in a writing style characterized by indeterminacy, discontinuity, and minimalism. Three major instances of deterritorialization are worth mentioning. The first one has already been suggested and favors economical writing over extensive narration. Playing on intensity rather than discursively, Doyle's language is often formulaic. Repetition takes over argumentation. For instance, during a discussion about the ethics of soul, the band members regularly interject a litany of such expressions as: “Drugs aren't soul”; “Guinness is soul food;” “Real Soul Brothers say No to the weed;” “Soul says no;” “He wasn't soul” (1991a, 74-75).
In its second instance, the deterritorialization of language manifests itself most saliently in the band's relentless use of slang and, in particular, the frequency with which the word “fuck” and its derivatives occur. To some extent, it is true that the slang used by The Commitments connotes both their working-class belonging and the vernacular of their generation. But with Doyle, slang is no longer just a matter of language register. It has completely pervaded language to the point where, for The Commitments, slang is language itself, their mother tongue. A particularly telling episode occurs in The Van where the Rabbitte family tries to give up swearing because Sharon's daughter is learning to talk. Their resolution is finally abandoned as they cannot express themselves in their daily dealings without relying on the all-purpose word “fuck” (1991b, 7-8).13 Deleuze and Guattari have stressed the importance of all-purpose words having indeterminate meanings in deterritorialized languages. Along with adverbs, exclamations, and conjunctions, all-purpose words are linguistic tools which can be used to intensify the internal structure of language so as to drive it beyond the limits of representation, that is beyond the specific meaning attached to linguistic concepts. This is particularly true of Doyle's writing, which undermines the representational function of language by driving the text into the indeterminacy of swear words. What is at stake here is the extent to which identity is traditionally inscribed in language owing its determinations to the way language organizes our representations. “Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection,” (1990) as Henry James wrote in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton (he could well have been speaking of language instead of art), the indeterminacy of Doyle's writing resists the discriminating forces at work in the traditional rhetoric of blackness. Finally, deterritorialization is most powerful in Doyle's borrowing of soul lyrics, particularly when only onomatopoeic transcriptions of soul's growls remain on the printed page. All meaning is lost to give way to the materiality of sounds. The “everything” of colonialist discourse and Irish writing is turned into nothing, i.e., noise. In effect, Irish Blackness is now uprooted from the tradition that gave it birth to join the nomadic itinerary of soul.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., describes the transient geography of blues as follows: “Polymorphous and multidirectional, scenes of arrivals and departures, places betwixt and between (ever entre les deux), the juncture is the way station of the blues” (1984, 7). It is precisely at the juncture of Irishness and Blackness that the band locates its cultural and political identity without surrendering to western demands of homogeneity. As Deco, the lead singer wraps up their first gig with “Night Train,” Kilbarrack is named for the first and only time in the book:
RALEIGH NORTH CAROLINA—
WASHINGTON D. C.—
He went off the tracks for a second.
—SOMEWHERE THE FUCK IN WEST VIRGINIA—
NEW YORK CITY—
BOSTON MASSACHU—MASSATUST—YEH KNOW YOURSELF
AN' DON'T FORGET NEW ORLEANS THE HOME OF THE BLUES
THE NIGH' TRAIN—
CARRIES ME HOME—
Deco let the other Commitments go on without him. The important part was coming.
Dublin soul was about to be born …
Deco growled:—STARTING OFF IN CONNOLLY— …
Deco was traveling north, by DART.
—MOVIN' ON OU' TO KILLESTER—
They laughed. This was great. They pushed up to the stage.
—An' don't FORGET KILBARRACK—
THE HOME OF THE BLUES—
Dublin soul had been delivered.
—HOWTH JUNCTION BAYSIDE—
THEN ON TO SUTTON WHERE THE RICH FOLKS LIVE—
(Doyle 1991a, 105)
If the real Kilbarrack—and not the imaginary Barrytown—resurfaces in “Night Train,” it does not yield to a monolithic construction of identity. Kilbarrack is “home of the blues” to the extent that blues is forever “come and go,” at once origin and destination. It is worth remembering that experiences of migration are deeply rooted in the Irish psyche.14 Massive long-term emigration is a well documented fact of Ireland's history, but temporary migratory movements between Ireland and Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United-States for illegal workers are no less frequent, particularly among young people. In this respect, Kilbarrack is no longer the territory of a uni-dimensional Irish experience, nor is it that of a single breed or social class. This explains why the DART (Dublin's rail system) ride that the band weaves into the lyrics of soul is so significant. The DART line stretches from Howth to Bray and crosses through both the richest and the poorest enclaves of Dublin. But in practice, it has not been successful in bridging Dublin's class divide. “Most Southside DART users,” Orna Mulcahy notes, “have never ventured beyond Tara Street station into Dublin's less attractive suburbs. Killiney's quaint Victorian station … is a world away from the concrete mass of Kilbarrack” (1991a, 1). By contrast, Deco is able to take the band on an emancipatory musical journey that transgresses class boundaries and freely explores both the wealthy and the poor areas of the city's northside. Moreover, the northern journey of Deco's revised blues lyrics is also reminiscent of another emancipatory northern migration, that of the African-American experience. Jimmy's working-class commitment does not allow for exclusionary tactics, quite the opposite. James Clifford, the piano player and by far their best musician, is a third-year medical student quite immune to proletarian politics. Even the term “proletariat” remains uncertain as Jimmy feels the need to spell it for the Northside News journalist attending their gig (1991a, 112). Like its counterpart in American geography, “New Orleans home of the Blues,” on the map of Dublin Blues Kilbarrack has become the terrain of cultural creolization.15
Ironically, the notions of migration and heterogeneity that Spencer had collapsed into the category of barbarianism are revived through Jimmy's soul politics. Only this time, their terms are that of metissage which, as Françoise Lionnet writes, “is the only racial ground on which liberation struggles can be fought” (1989, 9).16 Behind the humor of having young freckled faces declare: “I'm black and I'm proud,” Doyle succeeds in the quite serious and ambitious task of challenging diehard sectarian modes of identification. If we agree that popular culture remains somewhat disengaged from the fund of knowledge that shapes national ideologies, then it is indeed the privileged site where such forms of metissage can be uncovered. Even when the most painful events of history are concerned, popular culture can sometimes curiously allow for nationality to coincide with plurality: hence the odd fate of the popular Irish drink known as a “black-and-tan.” Made with a half pint of Guinness and a half pint of lager which their uneven densities prevent from mixing, this drink actually bears the name of the Black and Tans, the most brutal British servicemen recruited by the diminishing Royal Irish Constabulary to counter the Irish independentist movement. Read with a stretch of imagination, the black-and-tan now emblematic of Irish culture may easily recall Jimmy's Dublin soul, particularly if we keep in mind its meaning in the American context: a black-and-tan bar is a bar frequented by both blacks and whites while in politics it designates a system practicing or favoring proportional representation of whites and blacks.
Be that as it may, both The Commitments' Dublin soul and the black-and-tan are useful reminders that traditions are by no means natural. In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have aptly argued that national ideologies, symbols, and histories at some stage required invention, sometimes even forgery. Irish Blackness whether in its negative colonial version or its revalorized local appropriation was itself the result of carefully engineered narratives about barbarianism and purity. To dismantle those narratives as Doyle does, is in effect to make their constructedness all the more obvious. If there is nothing natural about an Irishman declaring “I'm black and I'm proud,” then there is nothing natural either about the Spenserian definition of Irish barbarianism. And neither is the dark aristocratic Gael a given of Irish identity.
But by the same token, it is precisely because identities require invention that alternative possibilities for self-determination can be found and new solidarities can be created. The plurality of self that The Commitments sets forth with the nomadic experience of Dublin soul yields specific modes of resistance against hegemonic discourses. Inherently unstable, the band's soul identity is political inasmuch as it offers no fixed site for power to exercise control. “We are the Guerrillas of Soul. We do not announce our gigs. We hit, and then we sink back into the night” (Doyle 1991a, 113), Joey The Lips informs the Northside News journalist. That subjectivities in The Commitments, whether individual or collective, remain transitional is therefore no surprise. Even Jimmy's ambition of forming a band, something that, according to Doyle, “occurs to everyone in Dublin at some stage” (Walsh 1990, 39-40), does not crystallize indefinitely. By the end of the book, Dublin soul is threatened by the jazz ambitions of the saxophone player, the band breaks up at the height of its success, and its record contract does not materialize. But another musical journey is in sight, that of “Dublin Country-Punk” intended for a land made up of farmers who listen to country music “at the wrong speed” (1991a, 164). In Doyle's hands, Irishness is metamorphosis: always a becoming, it negotiates new solidarities, adds and loses components as it finds new contexts. So should the band really have given up its original name “And And exclamation mark”?
In his introduction, Seamus Deane indicates that: “Although Northern Ireland is the site of the conflict, the whole island, including the Republic of Ireland, is involved as is the United Kingdom. Field Day's analysis of the situation derives from the conviction that it is, above all, a colonial crisis” (1990, 6).
In the 1992 general election and referendum on abortion, the apathy of the young towards Irish politics generated much debate among politicians and journalists since they were in sufficient numbers to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the election. See Uinsionn Mac Dubhghaill (1992, 6).
Rock and Roll band U2 has repeatedly expressed a feeling of solidarity with oppressed South Africans and Afro-Americans in the United States: for instance, recorded live performances of “Angel of Harlem” and “Pride” are dedicated to Billie Holiday and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
A best-seller in Ireland and England, his Barrytown Trilogy comprised of The Commitments,The Snapper, and The Van, was republished in 1992 in a single volume. Best known outside of Ireland for the screen adaptations of The Commitments and The Snapper, Doyle became in 1993 the first Irish recipient of the Booker prize for his novel Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha.
For a review and a response to Doyle's detractors, see Nuala O'Faolain (1992, 3).
Although Doyle's characters seem more preoccupied with their own private world than with fulfilling exemplary social roles, such reference to the northern crisis in the opening pages requires that we read The Commitments in relation to Ireland's overall post-colonial condition. The Van, the third volume of the Barrytown Trilogy, opens in a similar fashion with Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., reading a newspaper article about the release of the Guilford Four. Issues of post-coloniality have too often been set aside by critics of Irish literature, perhaps because the Republic of Ireland obtained its independence much earlier than other colonized nations and is now believed to have joined the ranks of modern western nations. In his Letter to an Englishman, Irish poet Anthony Cronin has aptly captured the situation: “I'd say the post-colonial era in southern Ireland's success. / I mean we have a post-colonial mess / Aggravated by uncertainty as to whether / The colony is really off the tether” (1985, 14).
In this respect, Doyle's writing exemplifies the contemporary literary climate which Seamus Deane describes as follows: “the ultimate failure of [the Literary Revival] to imagine a truly liberating cultural alternative is as well known as the brilliance of the effort. Now … Irish writing, operating in the shadow or in the wake of the earlier attempt, has once more raised the question of how the individual subject can be envisaged in relation to its community, its past history, and a possible future” (1990, 4).
Defined in Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique as a system of collective dispositions, structured and structuring, embodied within each individual, Bourdieu's habitus produces practices whose effectiveness has been tested by tradition, and which are in turn constitutive of that tradition.
Although their slogan “The Irish are the niggers of Europe” recalls that of the Quebecois “We are the white niggers of America,” the significant difference between them is the fact that, in the absence of the modifier “white,” the band assumes that soul culture and Irish culture somehow already overlap.
As historian R. F. Foster notes, it is significant that “the picture of Irish habits observed by English visitors coincided with contemporary anthropological ideas of savagery” (1988, 32).
The expression is found in Anthony Cronin's Letter to an Englishman: “I shouldn't wonder, if you would essay / Re-education in black Portadown / You would withdraw some forces from the crown” (1985, 25).
For his Barrytown trilogy, Doyle developed his inclination for “spare writing” into a deliberate writing practice. In Bookliners, a television interview with Nuala O'Faolain about the publication of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, he describes his writing itinerary as such: “The Commitments didn't have a narrator at all really, there was nobody except the characters. By degrees with The Snapper and The Van, there was more of a central character in it. With Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha … I wanted to break all the rules I had set for myself in the previous books, so I wrote in the first person” (1993).
This of course does not mean that the Rabbitte family is ignorant of standard English. Significantly, Darren (Jimmy's brother) is seen studying for an English paper whose topic reads: “Complexity of thought and novelty in the use of language sometimes create an apparent obscurity in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Discuss this view” (Doyle 1991a, 3). What Doyle's irony suggests here is that his characters are somewhat bilingual.
“Thousands Are Sailing,” a poignant song from The Pogues, the other Irish band to gain international recognition in the 1980's, evokes the experience of emigration to the United States: “Thousands are sailing / Across the Western Ocean / Where the land of opportunity / Draws tickets in a lottery / Postcards we're mailing / Of sky blue skies and oceans / From rooms the daylight never sees.”
Speaking about the Irish West, Brown remarks: “There is something poignant in fact about the way in which so many Irish imaginations in the modern period … have sought inspiration for vision in extremities of geography and experience” (1985, 92). The same is certainly true of Doyle's soul treatment of Dublin geography, especially when we keep in mind that Doyle himself taught geography in Kilbarrack.
Central to Spenser's demonstration of the Irish as a degenerate race is his belief that the Spaniards who invaded Ireland are “the most mingled, most uncertain, and most bastardly” (1970, 44).
I would like to thank Béatrice and Sean Mc Kenna who introduced me to Roddy Doyle's work and kept me abreast of recent developments in Irish popular culture. I also wish to thank Maurice Cronin for his insightful comments and suggestions, particularly on the topography of Dublin.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. 1984. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre, 1972. Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique. Genève: Librairie Droz.
Brown, Terence. 1985. Ireland. A Social and Cultural History 1922-1985. London: Fontana Press.
Cronin, Anthony. 1985. Letter to an Englishman. Dublin: The Raven Art Press.
Deane, Seamus. 1990. Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1990. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Doyle, Roddy. 1990. The Snapper. London: Minerva.
———. 1991a. The Commitments. London: Minerva.
———. 1991b. The Van. London: Minerva.
———. 1993a. Interview by Nuala O'Faolain. Bookliners. RTE Dublin, 27 May.
———. 1993b. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. London: Secker and Warburg.
Foster, R. F. 1988. Modern Ireland 1600-1972. New York: Penguin Press.
Higgins, F. R. 1927. The Dark Breed. London: MacMillan.
Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
James, Henry. 1990. Preface to The Spoils of Poynton. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
JanMohamed, Abdul R., and David Lloyd, eds. 1990. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lionnet, Françoise. 1989. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, and Self-portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Mac Dubhghaill, Uinsionn. 1992. “The Young are Not Revolting, Analysis of Polls Shows.” Irish Times, 20 November: 6.
Mulcahy, Orna. 1994. “The Costa Del Dart.” Irish Times, 27 August, sec. week-end, 1.
O'Faolain, Nuala. 1992. “Real Life in Barrytown.” Irish Times, 7 November, sec. weekend, 3.
Said, Edward. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.
Spencer, Edmund. 1970. A View of the Present State of Ireland. Ed. W. L. Renwick. 1596. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
The Pogues. 1991. The Best of the Pogues. Warner Music UK WX 430 C.
U2. 1988. Rattle and Hum. Island Record 422-842 999-2.
Walsh, John. 1990. “Irish Jig.” London Times, 4 August, Sunday Times Magazine, 39-40.
SOURCE: O'Toole, Fintan. “Working-Class Dublin on Screen: The Roddy Doyle Films.” Cineaste 24, nos. 2-3 (spring-summer 1999): 36-9.
[In the following essay, O'Toole explores recurring themes in Doyle's films, contrasting elements that he contends are purely Irish with themes that hold a more universal appeal.]
A smart young man with a head full of foreign notions and an eye for controversy writes a drama about the breakup of an Irish family. He pretends that its material is a realistic vision of Irish life, a mirror held up to the nation, but it is really a fairly obvious adaptation of themes that are current in the world of international entertainment. It shows a husband who is grasping and vicious and threatens to beat his wife, a wife who is a bit of a slut, and other characters who are variously feckless and immoral. The whole thing is awash with alcohol and bad language and makes a mockery of public morality and the decency of the salt-of-the-earth Irish poor.
The people, however, are having none of it. Their champions rise up to unmask the young pup as a man on the make, using other people's misery for his own gain. The intellectuals among them point out that the drama isn't really Irish at all, but is based on international archetypes that have merely been recycled and given a touch of local color. The thing is not in any way representative. Of course, the poor have problems, they say, but they don't behave with the extreme looseness of these characters. This is a sketch of the debate surrounding the play that comes nearest to being the beginning of the modern Irish theater, John Millington Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen, when it was first produced by the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903. It is also an outline of the debate that surrounded Roddy Doyle's series of television films, Family, in Ireland ninety-one years later. After the best part of a century in which almost everything had changed in Irish culture, the same questions of representation and realism were still generating debate, hurt, and uncertainty.
There is always, in every society where films are made, a problem with the representation of working class or peasant or ethnic minority communities. There is a gulf between the filmmakers, who are, of their nature, members of the mainstream intelligentsia, and the people whose lives they are purporting to represent. That distance encourages a focus on the exotic, the unusual, the colorful, the violent. The camera leads the audience on a vicarious excursion into unknown territory.
In Ireland, this problem is, for two reasons, even more acute. One reason is that, even within Irish culture itself, there is no strong tradition of representing the kind of urban landscapes that most working-class people actually inhabit. This may seem an odd statement in light of the fact that Dublin is the subject of one of the great visions of urban life, James Joyce's Ulysses. But Dublin is no longer the intimate city of James Joyce. His novel depends for its plot on the idea that any two people moving around the streets of Dublin would, in the course of a day, meet each other, and several mutual acquaintances, many times. Since Ulysses was published in 1922, the city's population has doubled to a million, but its area has increased six-fold. As people moved out from the old Georgian inner city to new suburbs to the North and West, the intensity of the place has dissolved. Thus, although, the city itself is old, much of it has no real history.
Half the city's population is under thirty, and the places where most of it lives were, in Joyce's time, no more than small villages surrounded by countryside. The zones of working-class housing that now ring the city—Tallaght, Clondalkin, Ballyfermot, Finglas, Crumlin, Coolock, and Kilbarrack, where Roddy Doyle grew up and where his books and films are set—were all built between the 1940s and the 1980s. They represent a new kind of Ireland, an almost complete break with an Irish culture that recognized only rural intimacy or urban overcrowding as ways of life. And they exist beyond most of the accepted visual imagery of Ireland.
The other reason for the particular difficulty of representing the Irish working class is that there is not, in any coherent sense, an Irish cinema. Irish movies tend to be funded, produced, or commissioned by agencies outside the country. With Roddy Doyle's work for the screen, for example, each of his four screenplays has been directed by an English director. Alan Parker made The Commitments (1991); Stephen Frears directed both The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996); Michael Winterbottom made Family (1994). The Commitments is a Hollywood movie; The Snapper and Family were commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Implicit in this situation is a further sense of distance. Not only is there the gulf of class, there is also the gulf of nationality. There is, potentially, a double layer of exoticism: the thrill both of looking into working-class lives and of looking into Irish lives. Two sets of stereotypes lie in wait—the salty tang of poverty and the charming eccentricities of the Irish. Since, moreover, Ireland itself has long been identified with colorful poverty, the two tend to fuse into a powerfully attractive cocktail of clichés.
The most significant thing about Roddy Doyle's work for the screen is that he has managed to escape those clichés, to envisage Irish working-class life without creating exotic images of Ireland or of his working-class characters.
The obvious way to avoid such dangers is realism: tell it like it is. But of course, what is real for one culture may be exotic to another. In Alan Parker's deft, enjoyable but deeply flawed film of The Commitments, for example, there is a scene in which a boy takes a horse up in the elevator of an urban tower block. It was, in fact one of the least fictional scenes in the film. Parker's crew had seen it happen while scouting for locations. Many working-class kids in Dublin do keep horses and some of them have been known to take their animals indoors. Yet, re-enacted for a Hollywood film, the scene looks unreal and over-the-top. It fits far too snugly into an old anti-Irish stereotype, the pig in the parlor.
Another, more pervasive, aspect of the failure of the film's attempts at realism is Parker's decision to use amateur actors in a number of key roles. Underlying this decision, of course, is the notion that what the audience will see will be, not a recreation of Dublin's youth culture but the thing itself, not actors impersonating characters but “real people.” The distance between Hollywood and the less salubrious suburbs of what was, in 1991, still a relatively impoverished European city, will be shrunk to nothing by the gritty authenticity of the actors.
The idea is naive, however. The whole point of Doyle's novel and screenplay is that these Dublin kids are not romantic Irish exotics. They have grown up with American music. They either know the moves and sounds of Detroit and Philadelphia already or they can learn them. They place themselves, not in relation to the literary landscape of rural Ireland, but in the unbounded domain of popular culture. When they form a should band they are becoming actors, impersonating the roles of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and The Supremes. By imposing the idea of authenticity on the story through the casting of nonactors, Parker misses the point. He also burdens his film with some rather weak acting.
In The Commitments, too, there is a scene in which one of the young members of the eponymous Dublin soul band goes to confess his sins to a priest. Again, this might be said to be an exercise in realism. Ireland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country and there are many young people who still go to Confession. But the scene—written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who reworked Roddy Doyle's original screenplay—is in the film only because Catholicism is, for American and British audiences, one of the markers of Irishness. It is local color, the equivalent of grass skirts in a movie set in Hawaii, or kilts in a movie set in Scotland. And the most significant thing about it is that it is completely at odds with Roddy Doyle's own writing. There is no mention of Catholicism in either the novel of The Commitments or in Doyle's original screenplay.
Nor does Catholicism have any real presence in The Snapper,Family or The Van. Religion barely features in the lives of Doyle's characters just as, in much of suburban Dublin, the Church has lost its influence. For an Irish audience, the absence of the Church in these films is completely normal. Yet the expectation outside of Ireland is that a “realistic” portrayal of Ireland ought to be full of priests and nuns. British reviewers of Family and The Snapper often asked “Where's the Church?,” taking their own preconceptions as measures of Irish authenticity. Those complaints, in fact, are a kind of backhanded compliment. They begin to suggest how, after The Commitments, the films of Roddy Doyle's screenplays have managed to escape the stereotypes.
Though the visual styles of The Snapper,Family, and The Van are quite varied (the look of the individual episodes of Family also varies widely), they have one key thing in common. They rigorously avoid local color. Taking their cue from Doyle's novels, in which there is little physical description of things or places, they take their world for granted. They operate on the assumption that their location doesn't have to be established, described, or explained. It is simply there.
And this is a complete reversal of the norm. Realism as a genre assumes that the audience lives somewhere safe and ordinary. It takes the viewer to places—the domain of the lower orders—that are assumed to be unfamiliar. The intensity of description comes precisely from that assumption of unfamiliarity—you, gentle viewer, are being led into unknown territory, and I, the director will chart it for you in such detail that you will believe that it exists.
In their work with Roddy Doyle, both Stephen Frears and Michael Winterbottom have been faithful to the spirit of his writing by refusing to make this assumption. They have found visual equivalents for the general style of Doyle's writing, in which Irishness is a function of character and language, not of place. This, in turn, is a direct reflection of what it actually feels like to be in a Dublin working-class suburb. The places are unremarkable, indistinguishable from similar suburbs around the world.
“People look at a place like this,” Roddy Doyle once told me as we were walking around Kilbarrack, “and they see that it's pretty much the same as anywhere else. The houses, the road, the video shop, the community centre, are all the same as they would be in any city in Europe. But that doesn't have to be a disadvantage. You can look at it and say ‘This is terrible, it's all the same.’ Or you can look at it and say ‘This is great, it's the same as everywhere else,’ and anyone in Europe is going to understand what you're talking about if you talk about this place. Precisely because it has no real history and very little local colour, it can be an image that most people in the world have access to.”
Not only are the places in these films assumed to be familiar, but the crucial influence on the films themselves is a form that is entirely bound up with the creation of a familiar world—the TV drama serial. Television serials operate by establishing a set of locations that quickly become so well known to regular viewers that they slip below the horizon of conscious awareness. They lose their specificity, their local color, and become a kind of universal background. This, essentially is the sense of location that operates in The Snapper,Family, and The Van.
It is no accident that the films mirror television serials in this way. For the films themselves are really cinematic soap operas. They tell a loose story in a number of episodes. Like soap operas they depend on familiarity in a double sense: the audience's recognition of the characters and the centrality of the family. For all of Doyle's screen work to date is essentially about two families: the Rabbittes/Curleys in The Commitments,The Snapper, and The Van and the Spencers in Family. It might even be said that all the films are about one family, for the Spencers are in many ways merely the Rabbittes in a darker parallel universe.
It is not immediately obvious that the same family is at the centre of The Commitments,The Snapper, and The Van. Alan Parker, when he bought the rights to The Commitments, also bought the rights to use the same characters in a sequel. Because of this, the Rabbittes became, in The Snapper and The Van, the Curleys. At the same time, of course, the latter two films were made by a different director and with different casts. Only Colm Meaney, who plays the crumbling patriarch in all three films, provides the essential link that ties them together.
There is no doubt that these factors weaken the overall impact of the trilogy. It is not that the three movies, in a simple sense, tell a single story or that each cannot be viewed in its own right. But it is only when they are taken together that the world in which they happen acquires, through the characters, the rich texture that the visual style avoids. The quietest of the films, The Van, is most dependent on the accumulated resonances of the other two and, if it is viewed in isolation from them, it seems rather small and flat.
Each movie tells its own story. In The Commitments, it is the rise and demise of Jimmy Rabbitte's soul band. In The Snapper, it is Sharon Curley's pregnancy. In The Van it is Dessie Curley's loss of his job and attempts to make a living by running a mobile fast food shop with his friend Bimbo. But there is also an overarching story, that of a working-class father's attempts to come to terms with the loss of his traditional role.
The same story in reverse—a patriarch who refuses to yield any shred of his power—is told in Family. Charlo Spencer reacts to every setback in the outside world and to every hint of independence on the part of his wife and children, with violence that escalates as his patriarchal dominance is undermined. To adapt Marx, it might be said that the story happens twice, the first time as farce and the second as tragedy.
Fatherhood and its failure is actually one of the main themes of twentieth-century Irish writing. Some of the best Irish novels, from Ulysses to John McGahern's The Barracks, deal with it. The Irish theater is full of rage of children against their monstrous fathers. It echoes through Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, W. B. Yeats's On Baile's Strand, Tom Murphy's A Whistle in the Dark, Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! Roddy Doyle's novels and films are, in that sense, firmly located within an Irish tradition. But they push that tradition into a new world and new times.
In the Commitments/Snapper/Van trilogy, Colm Meaney's character begins as the traditional head of a family. He is on the margins of the movie, a bemused, comic figure, watching his feckless son form the band, but he is still the paterfamilias. There is a familiar tension between the staid father and the quixotic son. Over the next two films, however, the father comes more clearly into view. And he is slowly transformed. By the end, it is he who is the quixotic figure. In The Van, his and Bimbo's adventures with their mobile fast-food shop exactly parallel his son's adventures with the band in The Commitments. They both set out with great hopes, overcome obstacles, meet with a period of great success, and then find their hopes shattered by dissension and suspicion. The comic reversal is that instead of the son being doomed to follow in the father's footsteps, it is the father who repeats his son's mistakes.
There is a quiet political commentary in all of this. The films—and the novels on which they are based—arise from a period of extremely high unemployment in Ireland, when the old working class was shattered by the collapse of traditional industries. With unemployment rising towards twenty percent of the workforce, the Establishment continually urged the jobless to start their own businesses, to become entrepreneurs, and to make work for themselves. In The Commitments and The Van, this is what both father and son actually do. Their quixotic adventures are actually attempts to fit in with the ideology of the times and to do what the great and the good tell them they should be doing.
This wry satire is merely the subtext, however, to a more obvious and more comically potent story. It is at once a very old comic theme and a very precise reflection of the situation of working-class men in the 1990s: sexual confusion. At a mythic level, The Snapper and The Van draw on the kind of antic comedy that the Greeks, Shakespeare, and the Billy Wilder of Some Like It Hot draw from the crossing of sexual boundaries. At a social level, they reflect a common reality of working-class life in the 1990s: men being forced by unemployment and the loss of economic status to take on female roles. In the sense, both films have a great deal in common with The Full Monty.
In The Snapper, Meaney's character becomes more and more absorbed in his daughter's pregnancy. He reads her pregnancy advice books. He does her prenatal exercises and breathing routines. He enters a female world becoming, essentially, a pregnant man. And in The Van, while his wife is moving steadily away from her traditional role by studying for state examinations, he begins, literally, to wear the apron. In the mobile shop, he spends his time slaving over a hot stove, cooking burgers, fish, and chips.
For all the intimacy, and all the comedy, of the films, this is a complex, subtle story, animated by large social changes and drawing on epic themes. And it is, at heart, the story of a man escaping stereotypes. Roddy Doyle eludes the problem of exotic clichés precisely by focusing on a man being forced by circumstances to move away from his stereotyped notions of manhood and of himself. In doing so he captured something that is both completely specific to working-class Dublin in the 1990s and, at the same time, utterly universal.
SOURCE: Hopkin, James. “Mired in History.” New Statesman 128, no. 4452 (6 September 1999): 54-5.
[In the following review, Hopkin offers a mixed assessment of A Star Called Henry, finding the novel interesting but stylistically problematic.]
There is something paradoxical about Roddy Doyle's fiction, both in the writing itself and in its critical reception. His novels are beguiling, exuberant and tightly plotted yet, at the same time, they're often clumsy, sentimental and a little too forced to be affecting. He's been vilified (for being populist) and honoured (1993 Booker prize), while many considered his last work, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, to be the novel that finally marked the end of his journey from apprentice to serious writer. And what better way to confirm this hard-won status than with all the gravitas of a historical fiction. After all, everyone else is doing it, so why can't he?
Neatly partitioned into four sections, A Star Called Henry opens with the author dredging the feculent gutters of a Joycean “under Dublin” at the beginning of the century. He does so in order to reveal a horde of desperate characters “made of Dublin muck”, including the one-legged hit man, Henry Smart, who dispatches his victims with a well-timed blow to the head, courtesy of his wooden leg. As he's the doorman of the local whorehouse—its decrepit interior all stiff with ageing velvet—he's kept well informed about street-level politics and, when he's finally popped off by the owner, it's an inquisitiveness he bequeaths to his son, along with his leg and a talent for killing. And it's Henry Smart Jr—the hero of the book and its narrator—who we see growing up on the harsh streets of Dublin towards the end of section one.
Immediately, however, there are problems with Henry's narrative perspective, especially in the relationship between memory and perception. As it's a story told a considerable time after the events, the narrator must recall what happened without allowing a knowingness to forestall the drama. And here Doyle is more or less successful. But when he goes a step further, to allow Henry to tell us his thoughts as a baby long before he'd have been able to articulate them, the results are embarrassing: “And what about me? I was annoyed. I was hopping. I was struggling, squirming … I was going to have to get used to—hunger and neglect.” Even though Henry proves to be a precocious youth (he's on the streets at five), it's farcical for a baby only a few months old to be this knowing, even if we have all read Tristram Shandy, and it serves only to jeopardise the reader-narrator relationship.
Yet Doyle is a good enough writer to win back our trust, and by the time he takes us to the epicentre of the 1916 Easter Rising, the General Post Office, we are too involved to dwell on past indiscretions. Having graduated from the streets to the Citizen Army, Henry is now fighting alongside the likes of Collins, Connolly, Pearse and Clarke in their campaign to end British rule in Ireland. Concentrating on the sounds of conflict, Doyle records the tumbling masonry, the “glass crashing onto glass”, the fizz of bullets, the shouts of pain and panic, the clack of boots on cobblestones and, when the lights go out across the city, the eerie moment of silence accompanied by “a darkness that only the farmers' sons had ever known”. It's all cleverly orchestrated to suggest both the romanticism and the gut conviction of a defiance that was also known as “the poets' insurrection”.
Again, though, Henry's brag and bluster detract from the nervous intensity of the scene. “I was probably the best-looking man in the GPO,” he declares, while telling us of the men falling around him. Then he confesses to being a “pleasure machine” and has sex with a woman in the basement. His life may effortlessly combine the craic and the pistol-whip, but there's an important difference between an unreliable narrator and an implausible one. Henry makes traffic between the two.
After the rising, Henry works by day and kills by night, sometimes using his father's leg to do the job. (Indeed there are several amputations in the book, which symbolise, in a fairly lame way, the dismemberment of Ireland's body politic.) Henry's love interest, the woman from the GPO, joins him later, and they cycle the city, shooting at the Black and Tans, like Bonnie and Clyde on push-bikes. Documentary details of the evolving political situation are left to explain what's going on because by now, the love story has taken over.
There are enough fine moments in A Star Called Henry to remind us that Doyle is an accomplished writer; his dialogue is earth and effective, he can render a scene as well as anyone, and a simple poetry plays around the edges of his prose. But he remains prone to stylistic flaws and heavy doses of sentiment, enough to sedate the most determined of stories.
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “A Bright Light in Ireland's Cloudy Sky.” Christian Science Monitor 91, no. 204 (16 September 1999): 16.
[In the following review, Charles praises Doyle for his strong narrative and storytelling skills in A Star Called Henry.]
I learned about the IRA in 1982 during lunch at the Hard Rock Café in central London. During my hamburger, a bomb blew up a crowded bandstand and killed six musicians in Regent's Park. Sound of the distant explosion startled us, but we laughed it off and went on with our meal.
A classmate of mine, though, was listening to the band that hot summer day. Shattered by her vision of the carnage, she quit school and flew back home.
Probably everybody in England and Northern Ireland has a story about the day the Troubles hit home. For thousands of people whose lives have been scarred by the conflict, it's impossible to fathom the terrorists responsible for these atrocities.
With A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle has imagined the unfathomable. His vain young hero, Henry Smart, is a maddeningly likable killer who realizes only too late what horror he's perpetuating.
If Henry is right and “stories are the only thing the poor own,” then he's a rich man indeed. The son of a hopeful girl and a one-legged thug, Henry starts his story with the miracle of his healthy birth in the slums of Dublin in 1901. He's the only flame among Angela's ashes, so to speak. Women and men stand in long lines to get a look at “the Glowing Baby.”
With the outlandish pride that marks his entire story, Henry says, “They looked at me and saw a fine lad who was going to live. The women had never seen one before.” Even as a toddler raging along the squalid streets by himself, Henry is impressed by his good looks and his power to seduce.
As his mother falls into madness and his father rises from bouncer to murderer, little Henry runs away with his nine-month-old brother in search of a better life.
After three hair-raising years on the streets, they find a moment of happiness in the classroom of Miss O'Shea. A cruel nun turns him back onto the streets, but not before Henry captures his teacher's heart.
Even as everyone wastes away around him, he never doubts his legendary potential. Five years later, at the ripe age of 14, Henry finally stumbles into history and again into the arms of Miss O'Shea.
The novel's spectacular second section opens at the Easter Rising in 1916. “I held my left arm across my eyes,” he begins, “and smashed the window. … Henry Smart, stark and magnificent in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army was ready for war. I was walking dynamite.” From this point on, the novel reads like a burning fuse.
He and “a sorry looking gang” of revolutionaries hole up in Dublin's General Post Office and wait for government forces to decimate the building, kill scores of them, and take the rest into custody.
Out of this futile battle, told with spectacular flourish, a hundred legends are born, including the ballad of Henry Smart: loyal patriot, ferocious warrior, and insatiable lover.
Teamed with Miss O'Shea and armed with his father's old wooden leg, Henry carries out a series of brutal assassinations for the IRA. He and his peers have no hope of beating their adversaries; instead, they commit atrocities to inspire greater atrocities from the British.
His dogged loyalty to the cause—no matter how naively defined—makes him a valuable cog in the battle, but in the end only a cog. He's eventually marked for death by the same system of terror he's served so effectively.
Though he joined full of fury at the British and hope for the downtrodden, Henry survives to see his cause twisted by petty greed, corruption, and brutality. This painful awakening from moral idiocy is Henry's real claim to heroism and the novel's most profound mystery.
Doyle's rich narrative style, familiar to fans of his Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), captures the sweep of a country breaking into civil war and the little moments of individual despair it causes. The first part of a projected trilogy on Ireland in the 20th century, A Star Called Henry revels in the sort of moral ambiguity this tragic subject demands.
If only today's real-life participants in the “Irish question” would demonstrate as much understanding as Doyle, this trilogy could end in peace.
SOURCE: Skloot, Floyd. “Irish Myth-Making and Myth-Breaking.” Sewanee Review 107, no. 4 (fall 1999): c-civ.
[In the following review, Skloot applauds the historical insight Doyle provides in A Star Called Henry, the first of a projected trilogy set in nineteenth-century Ireland.]
The Irish novelist Roddy Doyle has been popular and controversial long enough that it can be difficult to believe he is only forty-one. Each novel in his best-selling Barrytown Trilogy,The Commitments (1989), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991), was turned into a film. Then in 1993 Doyle demonstrated his literary cachet by winning a Booker Prize for the moving story of a young boy whose parents are at war with each other, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. According to Joseph O'Connor, Doyle's fellow novelist and a noted Irish cultural commentator, that novel's sales were such that the publisher “stopped selling it to human beings. … They've all bought it. We're going to have to try selling it to the sheep.” This book was followed two years later by The Woman Who Walked into Doors, a superb novel about an abused housewife. With five successful books in less than a decade, Doyle established himself as an international literary figure.
On the other hand his work has such youthful energy and concentrates so often on the young that it can be difficult to believe Doyle is already over forty. He seems boyishly precocious. His novels are accessible, their sharp dialogue laced with vulgarity, their spirits high even when their subjects are somber, which is always the case. For many years a high-school teacher, Doyle can seem adolescent in his fictional fixations, can be brilliant at times but at other times shallow. Using a hip cinematic structure and frenetic pace, he has displayed his remarkable imitative gift—speaking in the voices of a child or a woman—to capture the feel of Dublin's harsh suburban working-class life from the inside.
All this makes Roddy Doyle an easy writer to underestimate. When will he grow up, stop all that profanity, leave the street scene behind, and write serious work? Of course the answer is that he has been doing so since his debut—except for the profanity.
Risking his star status, Doyle steadily widened his scope and deepened his gaze. Now, with an impressively Dickensian sixth novel, A Star Called Henry, Doyle has figured a way to incorporate his mixture of youthfulness and experience, seizing nothing less than the early twentieth-century history of his nation as a subject, retelling and demythologizing it, all through the voice of a tempestuous street urchin named Henry Smart.
Henry is an ideal narrator for the story Doyle wishes to tell. Outsized, buoyant, brave, he comes across as equal parts David Copperfield, Captain Marvel, and Forrest Gump. He has the requisite chaotic urban roots, performs miraculous youthful exploits while finding himself at the heart of Ireland's tumultuous quest for independence, and manages to turn up beside the famous national leaders such as Collins, Connolly, and de Valera.
Strong and broad as this novel is, and striking as its view of familiar historical events becomes, the reader may be surprised to find that Henry's childhood lodges most vividly in memory. Doyle's surreal evocation of turn-of-the-century Ireland and one boy's ability to fight for survival is utterly convincing.
Henry's pretty mother, Melody Nash, “was a child of the Dublin slums, no proper child at all.” Raised on “bad food, bad drink, bad air,” she had “bad bones, bad eyes, bad skin.” Married as a teenager to a one-legged bouncer in a bordello and occasional hit man, she produced a brood of doomed children, most of whom died in infancy. Early in the novel Melody tells her son Henry that each dead child has become one of the stars he sees at night; she shows him one in particular, a star called Henry, named after a son who has already perished. So Henry comes into the world with a secondhand name, not only the same as his father but the same as his dead brother; and he is reared on myths that he must shatter in order to survive.
No one who believes Melody's version of the stars is going to survive a Dublin childhood laced, as this one is, with poverty. Stepping away from his fascination with present-day life in the Dublin suburbs, Doyle has never been better at evoking the sense of place, the city's forces at work, its urgency and horror: “In the dead of night, when we walked alone through the streets, when the horses were stabled and the hawkers were at home, that was what we heard—the city coughing. That was all we heard at four in the morning. … Dead, dead silence except for the thousands coughing, a steady, terrible beat coming from the rooms above us.”
Henry's voice is livid with rage and jazzed with the wildness of a poor city's teeming streets. He knows every inch, above and below ground, and he feels its pulse in his own. “I loved the street, from the second I landed on it. The action, the noise and smells—I gobbled them all up.” You would say that Henry was blessed were his life not so cursed. Indeed he comes into the world bearing miracles: catching Henry as he is born, his illiterate grandmother is suddenly able to read the newspapers upon which Melody has been lying. All who see his great size and gorgeous blue eyes know at once that Henry, unlike his siblings, will thrive.
He does thrive, learning to read, learning to take care of himself and, for a while, of his younger brother, Victor. Henry finds love, figures out whom to trust and when to stop trusting them, and learns the survivor's ultimate lesson: to stay one step ahead of the authorities. In some respects the novel entails Henry's learning how to deal with those in power, whom he cannot trust. The more deeply he is involved in his nation's famous rebellions, the more acutely he comes to understand: “It's about control of the island, that's what the soldiering's about, not the harps and martyrs and the freedom to swing a hurley.” So much for the myths.
The novel's four sections involve Henry's birth in 1901 and his early childhood; his presence at the Dublin General Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising; his role in the preparations and execution of the 1919-21 Anglo-Irish War; and his involvement in the early stages of civil war. Henry is everywhere, turning up wherever history is made. Spanning his first twenty years, A Star Called Henry is the first of a projected historical trilogy in which Doyle will cover critical events in this century's Irish history.
A new direction, indeed. Except, of course, that Henry Smart is the quintessential Roddy Doyle character. Like son, daughter, and father in the Rabbitte family of Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy, Henry knows the ropes and knows how to use other people to achieve his own ends. Like Paddy Clarke, Henry makes sense of a savage world in the best way he can, believing ultimately in himself and triumphing as a result of that belief. Like the abused Paula Spencer, Henry's resilience and ability to see through danger and his gift for spinning correctly the confusing information he takes in eventually evolve into a way of surviving what destroys many of his peers.
Through his two-decade journey Henry comes to believe that he has made some serious mistakes. He regrets following in his father's footsteps as an assassin, regrets the violence, loss, and personal sacrifice. He knows he helped create an Ireland that has no place for him, no home for another child of the streets, a poor fella with no land or family name. This first installment of Doyle's trilogy ends with Henry rushing to leave the nation he helped create.
In A Star Called Henry Doyle has scattered the mists of Celtic Twilight, letting his readers see freshly the forces that drove rebellion against England and the ensuing civil war. It is not necessarily a pretty sight, but it makes us anticipate what he will do when Henry comes to America and ultimately returns home.
SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Beauty and the Beast.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 October 1999): 2.
[In the following review, Levi compliments A Star Called Henry but argues that the novel is predictable and less edgy than Doyle's earlier work.]
We know their dream; enough To know they dreamed and are dead; And what if excess of love Bewildered them till they died? I write it out in verse— MacDonagh and MacBride And Connolly and Pearse Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
—William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”
The details, even the fuzzy outlines of Dublin on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, may be as sketchy as dreams in the minds of most Americans. So what gives precision to history? How are we to remember an Easter 83 years distant? Is it enough to know, as Yeats did, that “they dreamed and are dead,” enough to name the dead, in prose or in verse, whether the list runs to four names, or 100,000 or 6 million? Can one explain the universe by naming the stars?
“There's my little Henry up there. Look it,” says Melody Smart at the opening of Roddy Doyle's latest novel, A Star Called Henry. She is pointing up to the heavens, to each of the stars named for her stillborn children. The year is 1906, and the boy at her side, following his mother's finger, is one of the few survivors of the squalor and ignorance of early-century Dublin. He is a second Henry, a big, handsome, healthy 5-year-old, born “with enough meat on him to make triplets … a shocking substitute for the little Henry who'd been too good for this world, the Henry God had wanted for himself.”
There is a third Henry as well, Henry's father, a one-legged giant of a man, who returns home occasionally to father other children on poor Melody when he isn't guarding the door of Dublin's premiere madame, Dolly Oblong, or bashing with his mahogany leg the skulls of the enemies of Dublin's premiere gangster, Alfie Gandon.
Three years later, father Henry disappears. The son, now the compleat street urchin, armed with his father's wooden prosthesis, marches up to the door of a schoolhouse with his younger brother Victor. “We've come for our education,” he says to the schoolmistress. Inclined to turn him away, Miss O'Shea is stopped by Henry's terrible beauty.
“‘Two and two?’ she said.
“‘Don't know,’ I said. Two and two what?’
“‘Cows,’ she said.
“‘Four,’ I said. …
“‘Twenty-seven and twenty-seven,’ she said.
“‘What's in them?’
“I heard her elbow give up the fight, then felt her fingers on my shoulder.
“‘Are you a genius, maybe?’ she asked.”
When the abstract is given a name and becomes the particular, when two becomes two cows, yes, Henry is a genius. But despite the protestations of Miss O'Shea, Henry and Victor are chased away from the church school by the nuns, who are determined to place them in orphanages. And despite Henry's attempts to protect him, Victor dies soon after of consumption. Death finally has a new name.
On his own, Henry is soon taken in by another schoolmaster, the Marxist leader James Connolly, and taught to read and write and even edit speeches and proclamations. And so it is that he finds himself, on Easter Monday 1916, occupying the General Post Office in the company of Yeats' Connolly and Pearse, the leaders of the Volunteers and Citizen Army, fighting against the rule of the English. Six-foot-two, clad in bandoleer and rifle, the mahogany leg of his father in his holster, Henry is an improbable 14 years old, “probably the best-looking man in the G.P.O. but there was nothing beautiful about me. My eyes were astonishing, blue daggers that warned the world to keep its distance. I was one of the few real soldiers there; I had nothing to fear and nothing to go home to.”
Except his beloved Miss O'Shea, whom Henry finds serving tea to the fighters and itching to shoot a gun. There, in the heat of battle, grinding her bare-bottomed pupil into a stamp press deep in the innards of the G.P.O., Miss O'Shea gives Henry a very practical lesson beginning with one plus one. Yet war is a divider. And when Pearse finally surrenders to the outnumbered rebels, Henry has to use all the cunning of his father's wisdom and all the ammunition of his own physical looks to survive.
He becomes one of the faceless rebels not executed by the British, a smudge mark on a photo of history, an elbow in a blurry picture of the future leader, Eamon de Valera. From this off-camera perspective, Henry rises in the ranks of the rebels, becoming Michael Collins' favorite assassin. A name on a piece of paper is the only instruction Henry needs. And with the resurrected Bonny Miss O'Shea—known to her skeptical male comrades as “Our Lady of the Machine Gun”—at his side (Henry sticks his fingers in his ears as she takes her wedding vows in order to shut out the sound of her ineffable first name and keep her his schoolteacher forever), Henry becomes a regular Clyde Barrow to the republic. That is, until one day, just as it happened to his father before him, the piece of paper bears the name of a certain star up in the heavens. A star called Henry.
And perhaps this is Roddy Doyle's greatest accomplishment—the naming of the dead. At a distance, the names of the dead can blur into a blank wall. Yet Doyle turns the lens and adjusts the focus as Henry slowly learns that, just as there's no such thing as abstract math, there's no such thing as abstract death. At the ripe old age of 20, Henry has killed his last man. He has a wife in jail and a daughter he's held only once named Saoirse, Irish for freedom—Henry's first abstraction.
Doyle is a writer with tremendous caches of imagination. If there is a feeling of disappointment that accompanies A Star Called Henry, it comes from the recognition that the ideas Doyle sets up with flair are detonated with predictability. Henry's beloved Victor appears to him in dreams; the wooden leg of the father becomes Henry's equalizer; a good revolutionary becomes a bad terrorist because he's an anti-Semite; and the sex is always, always, phenomenal.
While this could be the stuff of a fine western, it is a bit too teary Irish, a bit too misty soft to match the brilliance of Doyle's masterful Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha. Eighty years on, the world is too hard a place for the softer edges of terrorism. A terrible beauty has been born. And while we might revisit its birthplace, we can never go back to the womb.
SOURCE: Wilson-Smith, Anthony. “The Seeds of Terror.” Maclean's 112, no. 43 (25 October 1999): 93-4.
[In the following review, Wilson-Smith evaluates the strengths of A Star Called Henry and praises Doyle's creation of such an empathetic protagonist.]
Henry Smart is a hard boy, an IRA terrorist and an amoral assassin. He is also a surprisingly sympathetic figure whose motives for violence are not hard to understand. From the moment he is born in 1901, the hero of Roddy Doyle's breathtaking new novel, A Star Called Henry, enjoys only one week of uninterrupted grace and affection—the first seven days of his life. Then his father, a one-legged bouncer and hit man also named Henry, makes the mistake of insisting to his reluctant wife that the baby be called by the same name—although it had previously been given to their firstborn, now-dead son. The pain of that decision drives a wedge between them, and poisons their attitude towards the first of their offspring to survive infancy. By 3, Henry is roaming the filthy mean streets of Dublin alone—and Doyle's most ambitious novel yet is off to an appropriately raucous start.
Of the five critically acclaimed books that 41-year-old Doyle has written previously, The Van (1991) was shortlisted for Britain's coveted Booker Award and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha took that prize in 1993. But Doyle's latest is his best novel yet. In his previous books, Doyle limned everyday life in working-class Ireland in fond but unsparing fashion, often through the eyes of his central characters. In the first-person narrative form he uses in A Star Called Henry, he does so again—but this time, against the backdrop of the Irish struggle for independence from England. His indictment of British behaviour, based on extensive research, is searing. But his descriptions of Irish actions are no less so, and that marks a significant break from the way Irish writers usually describe events of that period.
Doyle's remarkable strengths as a writer include his ability to take the hardscrabble realities of Irish life, highlight its casual cruelties and kindnesses, inject the country's trademark black humour, and weave it all into a coherent tale that resonates to readers elsewhere. His protagonists are not always likable at first blush, and Henry Smart easily fits that description. From the outset, he is invariably filthy and conniving, an unrepentant crook whose thuggery and thieving skills are surpassed only by his willingness to kill on command.
When he drifts into the IRA in his early teens, it is because of his resentment of the squalor he grew up in, rather than any passion for nationhood. Smart is instinctively cynical about all forms of authority or government, and his antipathy to the British is only really formed when he blunders into a parade featuring King Edward VII in Dublin one day—and, for reasons he does not even understand, heckles him. In Henry's first taste of combat, he deliberately aims at store windows, rather than the British troops on the street. “I shot and killed all that I had been denied,” Henry says, “all the commerce and snobbery that had been mocking me and other hundreds of thousands behind glass and locks, all the injustice, unfairness and shoes—while the lads took chunks out of the military.”
As much as anyone, Smart could lay claim to the title of victim—uneducated, unskilled and left to make his way through life alone. But he is exuberant and uncomplaining, and those qualities and others give him an unmistakable spark. He invariably loses those he loves most: his beloved and only younger brother, Victor, dies at an early age, his father disappears, his mother loses her mind, and the mysterious Miss O'Shea, his soulmate and eventual wife, fades in and out of his life without explanation.
Those who do not desert him betray him in other ways. Despite the fact that he becomes one of the IRA's most legendary and feared killers—his actions immortalized in song and poetry—he gradually decides that his bosses, behind their patriotic rhetoric, are as mercenary as the people they oppose. By the book's end, the rebellion's successful outcome brings little sense of triumph. The hunter has become the hunted, and he regrets the moral consequences of his own violence, as well as the overall circumstances he helped bring about.
That view has already caused controversy in Ireland, where it is a given that the uprising against England is a black-and-white tale of heroic underdogs rising against villainous oppressors. Doyle's view is more complex, suggesting that in the short term at least, the new Republic of Ireland simply replaced one set of greedy manipulators with another. The fact the country is now prepared to hear that view, he has said, is a sign of maturity: until recently, it would have been unacceptable. Meanwhile, the best news for Doyle fans is that the book's end is really a beginning, for A Star Called Henry is the first of a planned trilogy. But with the first installment alone, Doyle has once again remade Irish—and English—literature for the better.
SOURCE: Elie, Paul. “Ireland without Tears.” Commonweal 126, no. 20 (19 November 1999): 57-8.
[In the following review, Elie commends Doyle's prose in A Star Called Henry but notes that the novel's characterizations seem superficial and less than memorable.]
The early novels of Roddy Doyle were recognizable simply by the way they were laid out in type: long kite-strings of dialogue running down the pages, one- and two-word tags of speech set off by dashes and surrounded by gales of white space. The books were so slim, so light, so casually done, so effortlessly enjoyable, that at first it was hard to believe a big international publisher had troubled to print and bind them and pay smartly dressed graduates of fancy American colleges to write letters and make phone calls on their behalf. And yet The Commitments, about some Irish kids in the sixties who formed an after-school soul band, had the elusive quality the band and its mates craved—it had soul. And when it was put together with two other little books and dubbed the Barrytown Trilogy, suddenly Roddy Doyle himself—he was a public school teacher outside Dublin, but now he had quit his job and was writing full time—seemed a kind of authentic Irish soul man. The two novels that followed the Barrytown books (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked into Doors) were more conventionally prosy and well-rounded, and the Booker Prize given to Paddy Clarke in 1993 established their author as legitimately literary, but Doyle's writing still seemed to me most distinctive for what was left out of it. There was no silence, exile, or cunning here; no church, and no cramp of religion, but no folk religion of Ireland and the Irish, either; no lace-curtain lyricism, no author striving to transcend his origins or educate his reader. Here was a street-level, come-as-you-are account of contemporary Ireland, a place made new and surprising to its people by their sudden lack of interest in their past and their identity—an interest, it seemed, that had been exported to the United States.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Doyle would get around to writing a historical novel. A Star Called Henry takes place during the founding of the Irish Republic, the time of the Great War and afterward, and its characters cross paths with James Connolly and Michael Collins (but not, it is worth noting, with any of the literary figures of the period). The title page says the novel is the first book of The Last Roundup, another trilogy, and the two books to follow will presumably bring the story up to the time where Doyle started his career, the sixties Dublin of The Commitments.
The novel begins, though, with a sepia prehistory set in Victorian Dublin. The protagonist, a young man named Henry Smart—for this is a coming-of-age story—is his family's third Henry. His mother, called Melody, likes to sit him down on the front step in the evening and look up at the sky and point out the star that is her first son Henry, whom God took to heaven. Her husband, too, is Henry, an amputee ne'er-do-well who tramps around in an overcoat that hasn't been washed in generations, and sometimes works as the doorman at a Dublin brothel, where he wields his wooden leg like a club. As it turns out, the young Henry knows his father hardly better than his dead brother when the father, caught in the middle in a bit of underworld double-crossing, disappears. “Who was he and where did he come from? The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height. I know nothing real about my father; I don't even know if his name was real. … He made up his life as he went along. Where was his leg? South Africa, Glasnevin, under the sea. She heard enough stories to bury ten legs. War, an infection, the fairies, a train. He invented himself, and reinvented. He left a trail of Henry Smarts before he finally disappeared. A soldier, a sailor, a butler—the first one-legged butler to serve the Queen. He'd killed sixteen Zulus with the freshly severed limb.”
That passage is a good example of Doyle's herky-jerky street poetry, which he has retrofitted in this book for the nineteenth century, mixing in legend, maxim, and on-the-spot fictionalizing with the narrator's frank first-person talk. His trademark single-word exchanges are here, too. And so is his light touch. As Henry comes of age—a “street arab” traipsing around London with his younger brother, Victor—their desperate circumstances are depicted as comic adventures: grasping rats bare-handed before crowds to earn spare change, sneaking into school only to be thrown out again for being too poor. They are characters on the margins, which allows Doyle to write a historical novel without bringing in large tracts of history, facts and figures, period costumes and furniture, or old-time diction and slang. And here, as in his earlier books, his omission of these seems to make a point about Ireland and Irish writing.
—Do you love Ireland, lads?
We didn't understand the question. Ireland was something in songs that drunken old men wept about as they held on to the railings at three in the morning and we homed in to rob them: that was all. I loved Victor and my memories of other people. That was all I understood about love.
Victor dies soon afterward; Henry grows up to be astonishingly handsome, a fact he is too fond of telling the reader, and seduces the boys' young teacher, a flouter of convention named Miss O'Shea. Before long—Henry's stated indifference to Ireland notwithstanding—the two of them are caught up in the war for Irish independence: lovers, revolutionaries, and finally husband and wife, father and mother. “We became man and wife without me hearing her first name. She was and stayed my Miss O'Shea. I never knew her name.”
The story from there must be one of the cheeriest war stories ever written. Henry and Miss O'Shea pass from one historical point to the next—now losing, now finding each other. Their story is exuberantly told; line for line, the prose is vivid, sensual, original, gripping—yet it points up the one real weakness of Roddy Doyle's writing, one that is perhaps more obvious in a historical novel about the Irish revolution than in an offhand comic sketch about an Irish soul band. His novels are easily read, easily enjoyed, and, once finished, easily forgotten. Little survives the reading but their charm. And so it is for Doyle's protagonist here: Although he is a war hero and the hero of his own exploits—and his own sexual exploits—Henry Smart is not interesting enough to be the hero of a novel.
Not yet, anyway. After all, A Star Called Henry is the first book in a trilogy. Roddy Doyle is a star himself now; whether he is a great novelist is another matter. We await his, and Henry Smart's, further adventures.
SOURCE: Hutchings, William. Review of A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 594.
[In the following review, Hutchings lauds A Star Called Henry as realistic and engrossing novel, though notes that the work contains several passages of confusing surrealism.]
Described on its title page as “Volume One of The Last Roundup,” Roddy Doyle's novel A Star Called Henry continues his remarkable series of Dublin-based first-person narratives that has given extraordinarily insightful, lyrical, and poignant voice to characters who, for a variety of reasons, live in the shadows of their society: a ten-year-old child in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1994; see WLT 68:4, p. 810), an abused and alcoholic wife in The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996; see WLT 72:2, p. 386), working-class adolescents in the Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments,The Snapper, and The Van). However, A Star Called Henry is Doyle's first “historical novel,” set in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Vividly detailing the turmoil of the Easter Rebellion and its aftermath, it has as its narrator one Henry Smart, who is in many ways Doyle's “shadowiest” character to date: the novel is an audacious, complex, compelling, and intimate Portrait of the IRA Gunman as a Young Man.
The first of the four parts into which Henry Smart's narrative is divided provides an account of his birth and childhood as a street urchin, a “guttie” who has been abandoned by his father and has literally lost contact with his mother. The second is a narrative of the Easter Rebellion, during which, at the age of fourteen, he is among the rebels occupying Dublin's General Post Office. The third and fourth parts, during the five-year War of Independence which culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, trace his rising career within the Irish Republican Army, on whose behalf he dutifully and unhesitatingly carries out an increasingly violent series of assignments that include (but are not limited to) robbery, arson, and murder. Often on these tasks he is aided and accompanied by his wife, who later becomes an even more dangerous figure when operating independently. Soon celebrated in street ballads and rebel lore, Henry Smart becomes one of the most wanted men in Ireland, having to resort to multiple disguises and concealed identities, exiling himself from the city and separating himself from his wife and child, ever on the watch for spies, policemen, and the British military as he helps supply, train, and organize new IRA brigades in the countryside. When the novel ends, he is still only twenty years old.
First-person narratives by scofflaws, rebels, and outsiders—fictional and nonfictional alike—have for centuries managed to fascinate and/or appall, of course, and those featuring an adolescent rebel/outlaw/antihero constitute by now a subgenre all their own, including works as diverse as Alan Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Lindsay Anderson's If …, Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange, and Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy. The last, heretofore the best-known such literary account by an admitted member of the IRA, pales in comparison to Smart's apologia pro vita sua, in part because Behan's involvement was ineffectual and landed him almost immediately in jail. As Smart himself admits, with remarkable retrospective candor,
I was bang in the middle of what was going to become big, big history, I was shaping the fate of my country, I was one of [Michael] Collins's anointed, but, actually, I was excluded from everything. … [The] men of the slums and hovels … were nameless and expendable, every bit as dead as the squadies in France. We carried guns and messages. We were decoys and patsies. We followed orders and murdered. But … I was one self-important little rebel. I had no idea of my tininess and anonymity. I was the Henry Smart of song and legend. I was the inspiration for a generation, a giant on a bicycle. … I was one of the chosen.
Alongside the bravado and sometimes murderous derring-do, there is often deft comedy, though much of it comes from the tradition of the “tall tale,” and the braggadocio sometimes strains credibility. Often, Henry Smart becomes virtually a picaresque hero, particularly when recounting his various amorous adventures—including the loss of his virginity at the age of fourteen on stored-up piles of stamp sheets in the General Post Office on the eve of the massacre, having sex with a woman who had been his teacher five years earlier during the two days (total) of his formal education.
Many of Doyle's secondary characters seem to be almost Dickensian grotesques. Smart's father, for example, is the brawl-prone, one-legged doorman of Dolly Oblong's whorehouse, where all prostitutes are named Maria; its seldom-seen, enormous proprietress and her mysterious business associate seem to be somehow at the center of various nefarious activities that are never quite known, although an equally mysterious crone who is Henry's pseudo-grandmother gives him cryptic clues in exchange for his providing her with purloined books by women authors. The father's wooden leg becomes, for Henry, both a talisman and a truncheon, and the son is never without this sole legacy from the man who abandoned him and his consumptive four-year-old brother to the streets—although readers might well assume that the presence of the leg, even when concealed in its holster, would make it considerably easier for the police and British military authorities to identify and apprehend him. Though such implausibilities and comic excesses detract from the overall effectiveness of the novel, its psychological insights into an adolescent gunman are remarkable, and its portrait of childhood homelessness in the streets and slums of turn-of-the-century Dublin, where rat-catching for profit provides a means of subsistence, is unforgettable, heartrending, and harrowingly real.
SOURCE: Rourke, Mary. “When Irish Eyes Were Smiling, Laughing, and Crying.” Los Angeles Times (15 November 2002): E31.
[In the following review, Rourke praises Doyle's portrayal of his family history in Rory & Ita, noting that Rory and Ita—Doyle's parents—make entertaining and compelling subjects.]
Rory Doyle is one of the funniest men on Earth, but who would ever know if his novelist son Roddy hadn't written Rory & Ita? The younger Doyle is best known for his fiction about the Irish, most recently A Star Called Henry (1998), based on the Easter Uprising of 1916.
In Rory & Ita, Doyle goes straight to the facts in what is, among other things, a portrait of life in Ireland from about 1930 on. His parents are the eyewitnesses; in alternating chapters, Rory and Ita do all the talking. Readers must be patient with this arrangement. No dramatic action or engaging insight by a narrator opens the story or leads us to suggest larger concerns or themes. Instead, Rory and Ita tell stories about their lives, spent in tandem for most of their 70-some years. The effect is gradual but cumulative. Toward the end of their account, it is delightfully clear that Doyle has captured the Essence of Irish and bottled it at the source.
Doyle explains his plan in a preface. “The book is about my parents, about the people they were before they became my parents,” he writes. His only inserts are to help clarify new developments in their stories. “Her father had married again,” he tells us in a chapter in which Ita recalls what life was like after the age of 3, when her mother died. Pearl, Ita's stepmother, enters the scene. A woman of secrets and silences, Pearl has a drinking problem although Ita rarely sees her drink. (What Irish family doesn't have its secrets?)
From the early pages it is clear that these are working-class Irish, born in Terenure, on the outskirts of Dublin. Rory's family moved to nearby Tallaght when he was a little boy. It seems there are no “only” children in Irish stories. Ita is one of three children, Rory is one of eight.
Their earliest memories breathe-in their Catholic tradition as naturally as air. Rory's parents rented the family house from the Dominican nuns. Sunday Mass and a home altar to the Blessed Mother Mary are part of life. Like many of his stories, he recalls one about the altar as if it were a docile vignette.
“We had a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary done up for the May altar,” he begins. “A beautiful lace veil put on it and flowers and all and a candle carefully burning. And Aileen it was [one of his sisters] came along and messed with the thing and the veil caught fire. The lace was ablaze, and the screeching and roaring.” Aunt Lil rushes in and tosses a bucket of water at the trouble. “She put out the fire and drenched the whole lot of us.”
This is Irish storytelling refined to a satin finish. The live-in relatives, the Catholic faith, the children left to their own devices, the lurking calamity; plenty of Irish Americans who have never set foot on the Emerald Isle are likely to recognize the home life Rory recalls.
They are well-educated, these ordinary folks. Ita went to the nuns, Rory to the Christian Brothers. “There was Mother Madeleine; she taught us English,” Ita recalls. “She was lovely—she was tall and slim and very gentle.” English, French, religion, literature. School life for Ita was a social gathering. She left at 18 to take a job as a secretary. Rory was more interested in academics. The Brothers raised him on Latin, Gaelic poetry, English literature, all of these committed to memory. After high school, he got a job as an apprentice printer and made a career of it. Their memories of World War II are uniquely Irish. They refer to the war as “The Emergency”—an oblique reference similar to “The Troubles,” which is a euphemism for the current struggle for independence in the North. Ita recalls taking a black pen to the holes in her black stockings, but she says that rations were more a threat than a reality. Rory was far more involved in the struggles of the Fianna Fail, the Irish political party he joined before the age of 20, following his father's lead.
Courtship got off to a rocky start for the Doyles. They give details with a he said/she said difference of opinion, with unmistakably romantic feelings. “I liked the look of her,” Rory begins about the Sunday night dance where he first saw Ita. “So I headed in that direction and eventually ended up beside her. I asked her up to dance.” Pretty sure of himself, it seems.
“The earth did not move,” she corrects him. He'd been drinking: “He was on his way to footloose.” She decided to dance once, but no more. “I didn't like him one bit, I thought.” That changed at the next dance. Then came the bicycle rides, the family tea, the Christmas Eve engagement, the sisters-in-law to help sew the wedding clothes, a reception crowded with women because men didn't attend such affairs. And, finally, the first house.
“I was prepared to live in a tent,” Rory explains. “Ita said she'd like a bungalow. Well, as far as I was concerned if she'd said she wanted Aras An Uachtarain, (the President's house) good, I'd go after it.” (From what I know of Irish men, they all think alike on this point.)
They had five children, including one who lived for only about 24 hours. Ita, who marks time according to the people closest to her at a given time, recalls friends and relatives offering to help. Rory, whose memories are physical and visceral, describes the infant's funeral. It is a boy, named after his father. Rory carries the small, white coffin to the cemetery. “A profoundly sad experience,” he says.
By the end of their account about life together so far, we readers can almost hear Rory and Ita breathing in unison. We can also see which talents from her, which from him, were passed on to their writer son. Light-handed humor, an acceptance of people as they are, a way with words, all belong to Roddy Doyle now. He is grateful. “As for the parenting,” he writes in his preface, “the teacher in me gives my mother and father eight out of ten, but is it too late to add, ‘Making good progress’?”
SOURCE: Moore, Charlotte. “In Their Own Words.” Spectator 290, no. 9095 (30 November 2002): 54.
[In the following review, Moore offers a positive assessment of Rory & Ita and compliments Doyle's efforts in compiling the biography.]
My first memory is of the stone floor. Stone slabs. And I remember … soldiers marching, with their leggings and boots, and dragging cannon guns with mules, and the noise and the screeching and the roars of the men. And another memory is of my Grandfather Mullally eating griddle cake in our house in Terenure, and drinking his tea out of a saucer.
Either you like this kind of thing or you don't. I love it. I relished every word of Rory & Ita. The book is described as Roddy Doyle's biography of his parents, but Doyle is little more than a judicious editor of Rory and Ita Doyle's own words.
The result is a study in ordinariness. The Doyles are not famous, or even remarkable. ‘In all my life I have lived in two houses, had two jobs, and one husband. I'm a very interesting person,’ says Ita, with characteristic self-deprecating humour. In childhood, Rory and his siblings slept four to a bed, and Ita's widowed father forgot that little girls need toys, but this is no Angela's Ashes. Nobody is barefoot, or hungry, or abused. This is the portrait of a bright, witty, affectionate couple, more than averagely contented with their lot.
Rory and Ita are given alternating chapters, so that two distinct voices emerge. As their paths converge, they give different slants on the same events. Rory is more political—‘I became involved in Fianna Fáil because I was born into Fianna Fáil … I never joined, and I never left.’ He is a bookish man; he reviles his Aunt Lil as ‘a philistine’ when in the fuel shortage during the Emergency (as the second world war was known in Ireland) she burned his books: The Ascent of Man; ‘Dr Madden's … history of the 1798 rebellion’; The Sexual Mores of the Kanakas of Melanesia and Micronesia. He remembers details of mortgage rates and wages. Ita is more likely to remember falling about laughing at the sight of ‘a man eating cake with a fork’. She is a reliable witness on matters sartorial and domestic:
I remember making a corduroy jacket … and I bought what was all the rage then, a Goray skirt … and I had to save for a few weeks to afford it. It had the same wine colour as the jacket, and it toned very well.
She is unswervingly loyal to her family, looking after her dreary old stepmother and her crippled brother Joe. The closest she gets to complaining is when her third baby dies.
I gave somebody half-a-crown to put into Saint Anthony's box in the church, and to light a candle. I thought, we'll call the child after him and give him half-a-crown, the least he can do is take care of the baby. But he didn't; he let me down. I don't pray to Saint Anthony any more. I decided he was a dead loss.
All personal testimony is of historical interest. Rory & Ita reminds us of that. Roddy Doyle organises his material to lead the reader through the Ireland of the 20th century, from the innocence of the time when Ita's Aunt Una thought that adultery meant watering the milk, when water came from a pump and the lavatory was ‘a bucket and a seat’, to the technological revolution and end-of-century affluence. Rory and Ita embrace change wholeheartedly; ‘that was development, and I never wanted to stop it’. They travel to Russia, Greece, Spain; 40 years earlier their travels were limited by how far they could go by bicycle. Ita researches her ‘missing’ family in New York; meeting newfound cousins helps to fill the void left by the early death of her mother, of whom all she can remember are ‘hands, doing chores, turning the gramophone handle, holding me, and, finally, lying still and white’.
Rory & Ita is prefaced by a quotation from Buñuel: ‘Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.’ It's a pity that we can't all have our memories handled with such dignity and care.