Soft-spoken and reserved, Roddy Doyle is still grappling with literary celebrity. This spring, when the Irish author was invited to the Cannes film festival for the première of The Snapper, based on his 1990 novel and scripted by him, he declined. “Too nerve-racking—microphones in your face and that,” Doyle told Maclean’s recently, noting that he would have gone only if he could “lean up against a wall and watch.” Besides, Doyle pointed out, school had not yet ended—he was in his 14th year of teaching at Dublin’s Greendale Community School. “I couldn’t see myself sidling into the principal’s office,” he said wryly, “and asking for time off to go watch movies in the south of France.” Doyle no longer has to face such obstacles. He resigned at the end of the semester—"June 4, 1993, half 12”—to devote himself full time to writing. And when he came to Toronto recently to promote his fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, he demonstrated that he can perform with the aplomb of a seasoned actor. Before 425 fans at the Irish Canadian Centre, he read a scene from Paddy Clarke in which the 10-year-old protagonist and his friends are giving a mock funeral for a dead rat. They hold their fists to their mouths and make trumpet sounds—which Doyle acted out. “I feel like a right ‘gobshite’ doin’ tha’,” he confided to his listeners. They roared.
The second of four children of a printer and a homemaker, Doyle has created a literary landmark with his fictional Barrytown, a working-class area of his native Dublin. His first three novels, known as the Barrytown trilogy, centred on the Rabbittes, a family of eight whose lives are a mixture of high comedy, depressing poverty and domestic chaos. The first, The Commitments (1987), is the raucous story of a group of fractious, foul-mouthed teenagers who form a “Dublin Soul” band that performs black Motown music. A movie version, with a screenplay by Doyle and direct-
ed by American Alan Parker, became one of the surprise hits of 1991.
The saga continues with The Snapper, a grimly hilarious account of unmarried Sharon Rabbitte’s unexpected pregnancy. The film version, directed by Britain’s Stephen Frears, will be a gala presentation at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals next month. Doyle also recently completed the screenplay for his 1991 novel The Van, which was short-listed for Britain’s Booker Prize, and will co-produce the movie version.
It has been a heady six years since Doyle and a friend formed a company called King Farouk to publish The Commitments (they dissolved it the next year, when a British
Doyle: creating a literary landmark with his raucous tales of workingclass life in fictional Barrytown publisher picked up the book). “I still find it hard to believe that there are Japanese and Czech versions of The Snapper,” Doyle mused. “I don’t actually know anyone who reads Japanese well enough to know if it’s a good translation.”
Any translator would have a daunting job with Doyle’s work. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the books are full of hilarious slang, colloquialisms, vulgarisms and cursing that is so vibrant and charged that it is almost musical. Expressions like “f—in’ eeeejit,” “shite,” “yeh bollix” and “ridin’ ” (for sexual intercourse) turn up on almost every page. But, in fact, the foul language is so eloquently precise that it can be regarded as highly refined. And it does not disguise the affection among the Rabbittes. Despite the unemployment, poverty, alcohol abuse and limited social mobility that beleaguer them, they embody their own brand of family values.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Reed Books Canada, $24.99) is also set in Barrytown, but it departs radically in style and tone from his previous works. Told from the point of view of 10year-old Paddy, it depicts his daily life as a round of mock and real fights, school lessons, garbled religious musings, athletic games and thoughts about new ways to torment his younger brother, Sinbad. Underlying the whimsy is the increasing tension between his mother and father, which gives the novel a melancholy flavor as it moves towards its sad but inevitable conclusion. While the book is not autobiographical, its emotional inspiration, Doyle says, came from the birth of Rory, 2lk, the first of his two sons with his wife, Belinda. “It just opened up the floodgates of my own past,” he explained. And referring to the book’s strong sense of place, he said, “It’s not my life, but it’s my geography.”
In the past, Doyle’s unvarnished portrayal of working-class Ireland has garnered as much censure as praise in his native country. “I’ve been criticized for the bad language in my books—that I’ve given a bad image of the country,” said Doyle. "There’s always a subtle pressure to present a good image, and it’s always somebody else’s definition of what is good.” The author’s own view is that his job is simply to describe things and people as they really are. And in Doyle’s world, the lives are tough, the language is rough—and beauty and tenderness survive amid the bleakness. As Jimmy Rabbitte would say: “Fair play to ’im.”
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