In the three novels which make up Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy—The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991)—straitened lives are tempered by humor as the author allows the limited aspirations of his characters, the members of the Rabbitte family in particular, to rise, however briefly, even absurdly, over the still more limiting circumstances of their North Dublin working-class existence. Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) is also set in Barrytown but tells an altogether grimmer story tempered not by humor this time but by the author’s filtering his story through the mind of its ten- year-old protagonist, creating in effect an underclass version of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897) or the early sections of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915).
Where the earlier novels were fast-paced, lightened by lots of snappy dialogue (and in The Commitments blues lyrics), Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha turns inward to reveal what it is like to be a boy in such a world where hope is nonexistent and cruelty and violence, in the home no less than in the school and on the street, both casual and escalating. The sensitivity with which Paddy sees his world contrasts sharply with how little he is able or (in the case of his parents’ fighting) willing to understand, especially when understanding will only delay the inevitable hardening of character that seems to be his sole defense against Barrytown and all it represents.
The Woman Who Walked into Doors takes the inward, downward swerve deeper still. This slice of Dublin life will not inspire any Bloomsday tours of the city, as Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) has. Nor is it quite the Irish equivalent of Albert Square, the fictional and less menacingly claustrophobic setting of the popular English television series East Enders. In situating his novel so precisely and grittily, Doyle creates a sense of horrific familiarity, a “dirty realism” which he combines with a strangely poeticized, almost incantatory sense of tragic inevitability that is at once classical, naturalistic, and post-Joycean if not quite postmodern, far leaner and more elegantly crafted than, say, Frank Norris’ melodramatic McTeague (1898) or Theodore Dreiser’s ponderous An American Tragedy (1926). Character is not fate in Doyle’s fiction; family is, and family circumstances. This is not the Darwinian “heredity” and “environment” one finds in the Rougon-Macquart novels of the late nineteenth century French naturalist Émile Zola. It is instead something which, while no less insidiously deterministic, appears more culturally pervasive and thus less amenable to an earlier faith either in naturalism’s pseudoscientific documentary style or Stephen Dedalus’ grandiose ambition to awake from the nightmare of history and “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
The possibilities for sons are, as Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha shows, rather more limited and limiting. The options for daughters, as The Woman Who Walked into Doors demonstrates, are even more constricting, partly because they offer the illusion of choice (and the shame and guilt that go with making the wrong choice). A daughter can become a “sucker for romance,” as the narrator, Paula, does, or, like her older sister Carmel, “a hard b——.” (There is a third option: younger sister Wendy dies in a motorbike accident.) In grammar school, Paula’s storytelling earns her the approval she craves and fuels her short-lived ambition to become a teacher. Yet her years at the technical high school, where she is relegated to the next- to-lowest group, make her “rough.” (Doyle, himself a former teacher, makes clear the role such schools play in perpetuating social stereotypes and class distinctions rather than addressing and remedying social ills.) Paula’s options are now more starkly apparent and sexual: “slut” or “tight b——”; vulnerable (despite her hard surface) and still “a sucker for romance,” she gravitates toward the “elegant” eighteen-year-old Charles “Charlo” Spencer, a former skinhead with a criminal record. “I was Charlo’s girl now and that made me respectable.” He is king and she, not quite queen or princess, “but someone. It was a start”—an inauspicious one at best.
Indeed everything about her early relations with Charlo point to the kind of life she will have. There is her initial mistake in correctly pointing out to him that he had been held in a juvenile hall, not a “real” (adult) prison (a small and entirely inadvertent blow to Charlo’s precarious machismo), followed by their first sex “on 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.” Paula passes her wedding night alone while Charlo is off drinking with his brothers; their honeymoon is a week-long stay at a bed and breakfast. Soon after, Paula becomes pregnant and her situation worsens because she could not give Charlo “what he wanted, a pregnant wife who wasn’t really pregnant,” a wife able to serve as the outward and...