By Roddy Doyle
214 pages, $30
“Smile” is Roddy Doyle’s 11th novel. It’s been a long time since he had hits like “The Commitments” (which became a film by Alan Parker) and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”, which won the Booker Prize. “Smile” isn’t a return to good form; it’s more a grimace at memories half-repressed of school days past.
It begins with Victor Forde looking for a pub to call his own. He’s a failed rock 'n' roll writer in his mid-50s, living in a flat in Dublin. He’s split from Rachel, his wife, a famous TV personality. About their marriage, he remarks, “Men envied me, and women did too. And for a while, they listened to me, not because I’d become one of the country’s sharper more incisive minds, but because I was riding Rachel Carey.”
Life is past tense for him. Victor feels unreliably served by a memory that is increasingly deficient, or more ominously, intent on him deceiving himself. Victor puts it this way: “Jesus, he said. I hate that. The memory. It’s like dropping bit of yourself as you go along, isn’t it?”
He chooses Donnelly’s for his local, not too far from his apartment. It’s a place which he can have “one slow pint” a night along with his iPad for company. His barman is a lad called Carl. Victor enters and has this conversation.
Carl: “How’s himself?”
“Not too bad, Carl.”
Because he inquires, Victor tells Carl he’s almost finished reading a big book about Stalin.
"Worse than Hitler," Carl says.
You get the drift of common and not very intelligent conversation here. It’s a dumbed down version of the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan’s sparkling barroom bon mots. O’Nolan, also known as Myles na Gopaleen and Flann O'Brien (1911–1966), often put his own pocket change into the mouth of those he called the "Plain People of Ireland," an effort to restore common sense from cant in Ireland during the war-years of the 1940s.
There’s plenty of Dublin slang here: “He loafed me” – meaning a head butt by one of the Christian Brothers. For body parts and sex too. And examples of adolescent masturbation.
At this point, you’d like to know the reason for the title of the novel, “Smile.” It doesn’t take long to find out. Our man runs into a stranger named Fitzpatrick in his new pub. He claims that he was with Victor when they both attended the Christian Brothers School secondary school 38 years earlier.
He reminds Victor, who’d rather not hear it, of the sexual advances of the Christian Brother who taught French.
Victor wants to get away from this character who’s taking liberties with him; worse perhaps than the Christian Brother, whose remembrance has been reignited from a repressed time in his life. “Never give him an excuse to keep you back after the bell,” Fitzpatrick reminds him of what peers told him.
All those years ago Victor’s classmates relied upon a smile from him to the Brother teaching French – egged on by his mates - to cancel homework on the weekend for the lot of them.
“Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile,” Brother would say. Victor at 13 knew he was in trouble. He remembers, “It was like a line from a film, in a very wrong place. I knew I was doomed.”
Then Victor’s classmates bully him again, by calling him a "queer." He replies, "I wasn’t smiling, I told them, I wasn’t.” They don’t believe him.
So the title becomes clearer: a smile by one thought to be "a queer," who wasn’t, but who needed his friends’ approval. How awful to be a victim when you’re not, and yet you are. In a sense, that’s double sexual abuse perpetrated upon one, often by the Head Brother as well. The recollection meant that one must suffer through “a dose of what ifs” about who he was – or wasn’t - for the rest of his life.
The young boy recounts: “I became the Queer.”
“Murphy’s in his moods,” one of the lads says.
“We’ll get the Queer to smile at him.”
Doyle seems to be earning plaudits for “Smile” after some years in the literary wilderness. Society is concerned about child abuse by religious personnel across the world, and for good reason. Emphasis is important, even if it doesn’t seem to change much. The narratives that those who were victims divulge are endless and piercing.
But in a conversation about “Smile,” Doyle confesses, “Why I decided to write this particular novel, now, I don’t know.” I don’t think it adds to his reputation. He explains that the novel had no real structure until he got advice from his editor and British publisher, Dan Franklin, to read it. He says his editor – to whom he dedicates the book - made a simple and vital suggestion. After that, Doyle says he knew how to shape it.
In the end “Smile” is a disturbing, shape-shifting book.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.