In some respects, 1993 seems like a long, long time ago. That was the year Roddy Doyle sealed the deal and won the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Since then, he’s published a further seven novels (including Smile, his latest), short stories, nonfiction, plays and screenplays (and musicals), books for children and he’s even tried his hand at ghostwriting, helping out footballer Roy Keene with his memoir. Indisputably, he’s a significant Irish writer. He’s ploughed an interesting furrow. Like many of the greats, you could read a page of his work and know it’s him. But. You knew there was a but coming didn’t you? 1993 seems like a long time ago. He warrants kudos for pushing himself – and A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play that Thing and The Dead Republic obviously count as pushing himself – but they didn’t win him much in the way of prizes and I can’t imagine they sell half as well as the likes of The Van, The Commitments and The Snapper. As a reader of Doyle, you feel the tide-like push and pull – the writing where you feel he’s enjoying himself, the writing where you feel he’s pushing himself, the writing that feels natural and true and real, the writing that feels like he has an eye on his legacy. Normally, each book is one or the other. Smile feels like the first Roddy Doyle novel in which the tide is present from one chapter to the next.
Our narrator is Victor Forde, an older gentleman, not a million miles away from Jimmy Rabbite in The Guts (and like Jimmy, Victor is someone who has occupied a space narrowly adjoining fame but it’s in the past now) or indeed the kind of gentlemen who converse in Doyle’s Two Pints and Two More Pints. He’s recently left his wife (who is a genuinely famous person, someone who has built up her own business and made a name for herself as a kind of Karen Brady figure) and is starting to make his tentative way in the world afresh, visiting a local pub, reading a book over a pint, glimpsing a small group of men at the bar, wondering what it would take to be one of those men himself. He’s damaged but coping is probably the best way to describe him. Enter stage left a man named Fitzpatrick,
“My own age, judging by the shape, the black block he was making in front of me now, and the slight rattle of middle age in his voice.”
Fitzpatrick is elusive, one of those men who plays games, who can be threatening, who enjoys watching other’s discomfort. He’s a man from Victor’s past, and his presence allows Doyle to step back into that past, to Victor’s youth at The Brothers, a school run by priests. Ah, we think. This is one of those novels, is it? Dark school days casting their shadow over a life, birds coming home to roost etc. And it is, in a way. But it isn’t only that. Certainly we get interludes – such as when Victor joins the choir – that are comic and complete. And we sense there are shadows (although outlines take time to coalesce) but as we say there’s more to Smile than this. Because we also get Victor’s courtship of his wife, their early life together. As you’d expect, Doyle does this well. Here’s the first date:
“The pub disappeared and the only thing there was her face – and all of her.”
Later that same evening,
“Her hand, her arm, went between my right arm and side and into my pocket and around my hand. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me.”
Doyle is just pitch perfect when it comes to acknowledging the bright moments of a person’s life as they happen (there’s a moment in The Van as a wet dog runs round a kitchen and the family struggle to capture it that culminates in the sentence, “He was happy.” – and it’s enough, just right, pitch perfect). There’s a seemingly artless simplicity to it (which we say knowing it’s really artful complexity) and therein lies Doyle’s greatest skill as a writer. If you are loved, in love, have loved, there are parts of Smile you will read and feel a part of you warm in recognition. It’s always good to be reminded of the ways in which love kindles.
If the book is so damn good, then, why are we making such a big deal about 1993 and the ups and downs Doyle has had since then. Because Smile is more of a down than an up. Structurally, Smile feels like a book that can’t quite make up its mind. Is it an attempt to reconcile modern Ireland with its dark past, in which the abuses of the church were swept under the carpet? Yes, in some ways (and that feels exactly like the kind of book Doyle should be writing too). Is it a book about marriage – about what it takes to make a marriage work, about what happens when one or both of the people involved in said marriage take their eye off the ball? Very much so. Is it also a book that veers from Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love to Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ in a way that is decidedly strange? Yes. Very much so yes. One of these might make for a great novel. Two of these arguably could make for a great novel. Three of them serve to knock what’s good ever so slightly out of kilter – and as with Magnus Mills’ most recent novel The Forensic Records Society or less recently Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Smile is a book the climax of which is likely to determine how you feel about the whole.
So: we’re glad it’s not another sequel, we’re glad he’s grappling with meaty subjects (like the Church), we’re glad his keen eye for domestic bliss and its opposite are as well honed as ever; we’re just sorry that we didn’t like what he was setting out to do a bit more. We didn’t buy it. We felt like Doyle hopscotched his way towards something otherworldly without really earning it. What’s more, if you place this book alongside Graham Caveney’s memoir, The Boy of Perpetual Nervousness, you can’t help but feel that the last thing this book needs is a supernatural element; the story is already enough. Is he trying his hand at something different? Yes. Good for him. Always good to step outside the old comfort zone. Is it entirely a success? No. No it isn’t.
Any Cop?: One of those novels that we sense might get a kicking and then, in years to come, find a fanbase who cherish it above all others. It has that sort of quality to it.