Roddy Doyle frequently returns in his novels to a childhood in the 1960s and 1970s on a housing estate in north Dublin: an unexceptionally dangerous place. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which won the Booker Prize in 1993, unsentimentally presented the innocence and savagery of ten-year-old boys who communicate through violence with both enemies and friends, and collapse these categories: “They were our friends because we hated them; it was good to have them around.”
It’s a world where men show their love for each other through crackling verbal jousting – “slaggin’” – which can be a way of making light of widespread cruelty learned from adults at home and in school. In Paddy Clarke and The Woman Who Walked into Doors, we come across corrupt teachers who can easily set a child on a path to a ruined adulthood.
Doyle, who used to be a secondary school teacher, returns again to the trauma of school days in Smile. The 54-year-old Victor Forde, recently separated from his television presenter wife, goes back to the neighbourhood that he left long ago and finds himself, for the first time in his life, in need of a local pub. Having settled into a routine of one pint a night in Donnelly’s, he is accosted by Eddie Fitzpatrick, who remembers him from the Christian Brothers school that they went to down the road.
Eddie is a boorish builder brought low by the recession and Victor struggles to place him, but his accent is the madeleine that takes Victor back to the horniness of his youth: “I went to the school, St Martin’s CBS, for five years and I had an erection for four of them, even during Irish… I rode the desk, or I tried to.”
But what he remembers most is those who taught him. The Christian Brothers have acknowledged the abuse perpetrated in their schools all over the world, so the reader will fear the worst when Victor remembers Brother Murphy telling him in front of the class that he “can never resist your smile”. Murphy turns out to be one of the more benign Brothers, but the school’s head Brother is an altogether more menacing character.
Interspersed with tales of school is an account of the start of Victor’s adult life: his time at university before he drops out to become a music and features journalist, then a radio and TV rent-a-gob, who becomes infamous for challenging Irish public morality in the 1980s with his views in favour of abortion and contraception. It’s towards the end of this brief time in the limelight that he reveals on air that he was “felt up by a Christian Brother” at school. It is a momentous confession, though in a 15-minute interview he spends three minutes describing the abuse and the next 12 telling funny stories about the Brothers: “It wasn’t too bad.”
This is the reader’s experience, too. The moment Victor is pinned down and “fondled” is shocking but surrounded by comic episodes. When he returns home to talk to his wife, she asks him, “But why did you mention the other stuff?” He reflects that he “didn’t exactly bury the story – my story – but I made it, somehow, an expected part of every Irishman’s education. A bit of a gas. Not so bad. Part of what we are.”
Smile is a Trojan Horse. The tale of how a man got on with his life after an abusive childhood, in part by laughing at it, is a disguise: Doyle’s tactic is to puncture the comedy of Irish storytelling and show that it can camouflage horrific histories. Doyle is one of the best writers of dialogue we have, using it with humour and drama. The great strengths of his writing, however, are put under pressure here by a huge reversal that occurs in the last pages of the novel, when the reader realises that Victor has never escaped his childhood trauma after all.
What has been a subtle excavation of a repressed consciousness suddenly employs the pyrotechnics of Gone Girl-type thrillers, praised for their unexpected twists. I won’t say what this twist is, but there is a tension between the seriousness of Doyle’s intent and the gaudiness of the conceit.
A narrative explosion that burns so brightly also scorches much of value. The only reason one rereads a novel with such a twist is to ascertain that it makes sense. Aflame with curmudgeonly zeal, I began the novel again, hoping to catch Doyle out in an inconsistency. I couldn’t exactly, though a gap of 30 years of Victor’s life is conveniently unaccounted for. I wonder if Doyle didn’t realise at first that he would blow up his novel in this way – and whether the ghost of a subtler novel haunts these pages.
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire