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Doyle pays a visit to an old and now sober friend

Maeve Binchy, that wonderful novelist and column writer for the Irish Times, calls Roddy Doyle's new novel, "Paula Spencer", "utterly cheerful." I'll have whatever Maeve Binchy is drinking.

The cover photo of the book features a bottle of milk that has gone beyond sour in the fridge. The residue at the bottom of the bottle is black. Viking, the publisher, calls the book a "moving tale of Paula's fight for a better future." Perhaps.

"Paula Spencer" is a depressing book limned with a faint tincture of hope that gives way from time to time to the scent of alcohol. In it, the author makes a return visit to an earlier character of his, Paula Spencer. Paula was featured in Doyles 1996 novel, "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors." As the novel begins, she is forty-eight and off the drink for four months and five days.

The Garda have killed her abusive husband, Charlo, after he murdered a woman and jumped into a car to escape the scene. It was at that point that Charlo, not the smartest Mick on the block, realized that he did not know how to drive. He jumped from the car and was diced and sliced by a fusillade of bullets.

Sadly, the Irish are magic at maiming. Paula tells us: "The women (on the radio) are talking about living in their part of Belfast." They say, someone got shot, "A Padre Pio -- through the hand." (Padre Pio is a Catholic saint who bore the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on his heart, hands and feet, for fifty years.)

Paula has a job cleaning offices and houses. Two of her kids, John Paul, 16, recovering from heroin and Leanne, 22 years old, an alcoholic and bed-wetter, live at home. Her other two children, Nicole and Jack, have left home. Nicole is a love. She cares for her mother and looks in on her.

Doyle tells the story through Paula, in the third person: "she's exhausted", "she looks happy," "she goes down the stairs." Doyle tells us what Paula knows and does. I don't find this mode of storytelling appealing. I want to say to Doyle, "Let Paula speak for herself; get out of the way."

If you must read this book -- and many people will read whatever Roddy Doyle writes -- it might be seen as a book of two Irelands, the old and the new. The old Ireland, the country of John McGahern and William Trevor, includes the drink and the abuse as daily staples, the meat and potatoes of Irish life. Doyle's earlier books "The Commitments", "The Snapper", "The Van" and "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" had their dark moments but were on balance brighter.

The new Ireland that Paula tries to cope with is the country of the euro, the Dart and the Luas, new modes of transportation in Dublin. Ireland now has an economy that allows Paula's sister, Carmel, to buy an apartment in Bulgaria as an investment. Ireland is the country where African women, not locals, work at the supermarket check-out. It is the country where 75,000 Vietnamese (since 1975) and 300,000 Eastern Europeans (in the last three years alone) help grow the Celtic tiger economy. Old Ireland is fast disappearing.

Paula does her best trying to keep sober, solvent and change with the times. "She'll never get over the terror of having no money, the prison of having nothing." However, she tries. She meets an old gent named Joe, whose wife has left him for another woman. They go for walks.

Paula visits her sister, Carmel, who is in the Mater Private Hospital for a mastectomy. I am not sure whether this activity is what passes for social life in Ireland or whether they are merely corporal works of mercy on Paula's part. After visiting her sister, Paula buys a cake for her forty-ninth birthday. "It's in the fridge. They'll have it when she gets home,", Doyle tells us. Yeah, they will if anybody is home.

It's all "grand," as they say in Dublin. But it doesn't look that way from here.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.

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Paula Spencer

By Roddy Doyle

Viking, 281 pp., $24.95

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