I’ve been reading Roddy Doyle for several decades now. That’s kind of nice. He and I have grown up and begun to grow old together.
For the past few years he has been writing little scenes for Facebook, sponsored by Guinness. These are just the “good parts,” the dialogue Mr. Doyle writes so well. Funny vignettes featuring two blokes in a bar yammering about something they saw on the telly. I can’t help but read them in what would be a terribly done Irish brogue if I read it out loud. It’s impossible for me to read Mr. Doyle for long without an thick Irish accent.
I was so happy when Smile entered the pub. So happy when the narrator found his way into a group of old pals who met there nightly. These scenes are a great source of fun in Mr. Doyle’s new novel Smile.
But while this is a funny book, it is not one of Mr. Doyle’s comedies.
The narrator has just been basically dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Rachel The two spent decades together. During this time she became one of Ireland’s most successful entrepreneurs, taking her catering business to such heights that she even became a television celebrity hosting her own talk show. The two were quite the celebrity couple for a while.
The narrator himself, not so impressive. Whatever success he has, he owes to Rachel and he knows it.
She saved me. That was what Rachel did. She saved me and, later, she carried me. Her assertiveness, that way she grabbed me, pulled me into her, turned her back and remained the boss, her willingness to cry, the way she took sex, took and gave – I can see now that it saved me. It stunned me and made me. I’d fallen in love with an adult. I wasn’t a fraud; I was a slow starter.
Smile is not only funny, it’s romantic and it’s pretty sexy, too.
But it’s not ultimately a comedy. We know all along that there is not going to be a happy ending.
The narrator has already lost this wonderful woman; he admits he has not had contact with his son in over three years; he has already lost his job as a television and radio commentator; he has already failed to complete the great novel he was supposed to write; he has moved back to his childhood hometown, a failure in every way, to try to start again.
To try to come up with a happy ending.
FROM HERE ON THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.
While reading Smile I was struck by just how brutal Irish schooling was during the 60’s and 70’s, the time when the narrator, and Mr. Doyle, would have been in school. The everyday violence the narrator describes, the things every child just had to deal all the time, shocked me. The children were kept in line by a constant threat of extreme violence, the kind that leaves more than psychological marks behind. That the narrator endured what he later describes as a sexual assault is something I should have expected, given everything else that went on.
When he finally admits this, to the reader and then later to the nation during an interview on a morning radio program, he quickly puts it aside as bad but not all that bad which I could understand. It was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. Just some touching through the clothes. It could have been so much worse.
A feeling which came back to haunt me by the end of the book and in the days following. This is a story that has stayed in the forefront of my mind for a week now.
There’s a twist in the end, one that I have to discuss if I’m do discuss why this book affected me as much as it did and one that I had to reread three times before I could understand what had just happened. It was a Twilight Zone moment that you had to rewatch if there was no older brother there to explain it to you.
There is a character in the pub scenes, Fitzgerald, a man the who says he went to school with the narrator although the narrator cannot remember him at all. The narrator doesn’t like him. He’s a bit obnoxious, a bit of a sad-sack, kind of a loner. After he introduces the narrator to the group of regular blokes he begins to vanish from the story until the book’s final pages where he confronts the narrator.
“I am you,” he says.
The narrator is as confused as I was, but finally, after a few pages I had to reread several times, he understands that he is Fitzgerald, that this more-or-less happy man who has had something of a charmed life, is a fiction he has created. He is really the loner, the guy in the pub few people ever talk to at all, who never buys a round and never has a round bought for him. That he never had more than a passing contact with Rachel, who is a real person, that he has just imagined what it his life would have been like if she had been his girlfriend.
That what his teacher did to him in school was much worse than a single “not so bad” incident. That he was raped on 17 occasions. So many times that the teacher who did it used this to accuse him of wanting it in the end. An accusation he began to believe. Why didn’t he do anything about it? He was fourteen at the time. He could have done something. Fitzgerald, himself, accuses him. Fitzgerald, himself, is the man he want’s to escape.
Which turns the novel on its head the way the last line in a Henry James story so often does.
What has struck me looking back on Smile this week is how powerful the effects of childhood abuse were on the narrator’s imagination. He is creating, in his head and on paper I guess, the life he would have had if he had not been abused.
But he cannot imagine not being abused. He can only imagine being abused in a way that was small enough to be dismissed as not very important. Abuse he could recover from is the only alternative he can imagine. Not being abused as all is beyond his ken.
He cannot imagine being a successful writer, just being a man who once showed promise but never was able to finish his novel, to get it started really. He can imagine being a father but only the kind of father who ends up estranged from his son. And the great love of his imagined life, Rachel–he ends up losing her even in a pretend romance. All the profound moments of intimacy he shared with Rachel– he was alone every time, imagining what intimacy would be like and failing to make it last.
In the space of a couple of pages, what was an entertaining story about a man coming to grips with losing what had been a charmed life became a haunting tragedy.
Which is why Roddy Doyle’s Smile is my new favorite book and another reason why Roddy Doyle has long been one of my favorite writers.