Revelations of maltreatment, sexual assault, and neglect of children under the care of Catholic clergy have changed the political landscape in Ireland, a country where the church’s reach extends into public schooling, hospitals, social services, and family life. Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, Smile, channels Irish outrage at the abuse and its cover-up, but withholds the story’s full moral fury until its final pages. Doyle, after all, is a literary master of the deceptively light touch. In Smile, his narrator’s ironic introspection and his characters’ deft banter reassure the reader even as Doyle gradually but relentlessly intensifies a mood of foreboding.
Smile’s middle-aged narrator, Victor Forde, is a rueful, self-doubting writer despite the fifteen minutes of fame he briefly enjoyed as a young cultural commentator. Once the husband of a famous media darling, the love of his life, Victor tells us his marriage is now over. He has moved from the center of trendy Dublin to the decidedly less fashionable neighborhood where he was raised. Lonely, his career in shambles, he establishes his presence in a local pub, where he hopes to enjoy the nightly ritual of pints and the company of regulars.
Soon enough, a man he can’t quite place introduces himself as a childhood schoolmate. Victor takes an immediate disliking to Eddie Fitzpatrick, who is large, coarse, and clumsy, but also feels some guilty pity. Gradually his conversations with Eddie remind him of a childhood he has mostly filed away in the deepest reaches of his subconscious. A reader learns early in the story that Victor, years before, revealed on a radio broadcast that a Christian Brother at his secondary school had fondled him. Now Fitzpatrick’s questions cause him to delve deeper into his memories of the Brothers’ torments.
So far, so Roddy Doyle. Doyle charmed his way onto the literary scene thirty years ago with The Commitments, a rollicking, profane, dialogue-driven account of a Dublin soul band. The Snapper and The Van, the following volumes in his Barrytown Trilogy, expanded his range with less obviously comedic material: unwed motherhood, layoffs, a family’s economic dead ends. Doyle’s narrative heart belongs to outsider Dublin, the scrappers and strugglers who embody the Irish argument with capitalism itself. As his novels have darkened and deepened, his explorations of working-class Dubliners’ lives have peered behind the closed doors of propriety to take on the painful subjects of the dissolution of marriage (the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) and spousal abuse (The Woman Who Walked into Doors). The snappy dialogue that defines Doyle’s style for so many readers is matched by his taut exposition, but he has also been drawn to more experimental forms; his historical trilogy The Last Roundup, chronicling an IRA man on the run, tries out improvisational riffing and consciousness-streaming while sweeping through twentieth-century history.