BOOK REVIEW / Some mucking about and the dewy stuff, too: Ten is not too young to be a hero, as Giles Smith finds in Roddy Doyle's new novel: Paddy Clarke ha ha ha - Roddy Doyle: Secker & Warburg, pounds 12.99
Saturday 26 June 1993
And that's not to mention the handful of really stand-out experiences, such as the day Paddy and his friends set fire to a rat, the occasion on which they shoplifted a handful of Womans Ways, the time they wedged a dead guinea pig in the letter box of an entirely innocent pensioner. Perhaps not enough raw material for War and Peace here, but easily enough for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
In his new novel, the Irish writer Roddy Doyle is a boy again. Paddy Clarke tells his story in the first person, presenting us with a world entirely circumscribed by the things 10-year-old boys are obsessed with - snot, scabs, the sticky stuff you wake up with in your eyes, Manchester United, etc. The three hugely popular books which Doyle set in Barrytown (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van) all throng with adults who say the first words that come into their heads, so in some respects Paddy Clarke is business as usual. Then again, a 10-year-old carrying an entire novel? Doyle is by no means the first to attempt this, but even James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man only tried it on for one page.
Doyle has said that if you can surrender your disbelief that a child could sit down and write a 70,000-word book, then you'll be away. Actually, the text immediately gathers itself into a flow like speech, and it rarely occurs to you to think that someone sat down and wrote this out. Stranger still, for nearly 300 pages, this 10-year-old child goes on at you, non-stop, and yet at no point do you experience a desire to send the book out into the garden or upstairs to its bedroom; at no point are you itching to get it out from under your feet.
That is by no means kids' stuff. As a literary exercise, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is impeccably executed. What is remarkable is how rarely you sense the guiding hand, how infrequently Doyle shows his age - and it is particularly unfortunate that one of the occasions when he does is on the first page: 'Liam,' we're told, 'dirtied his trousers one day - the smell of it rushed at us like the blast of heat when an oven door was opened.' That 'rushed' jumps out a little, seems too precisely chosen to ring true here. Unlike nearly all of what follows.
The obvious idea is to keep the sentences short and sweet - the kind of things you might find in unjoined handwriting in an exercise book. 'He had the bike. He realised this. He gave it back. I got up. He held the back. He said nothing. I pedalled. We went down the garden.' But a whole book like this would grow rapidly numbing. So Doyle contrives to set different rhythms going by building longer sentences in which the syntax softly collapses and the words still sound like they might have dropped from a kid's lips. 'The building site kept changing, the fenced-in part of it where they kept the diggers and the bricks and the shed the builders sat in and drank tea.' True, under close analysis, Paddy probably has a preternaturally expanded vocabulary. But he returns to his own terms (things are invariably either 'brilliant' or 'stupid') enough for you to hear an authentic voice.
It must be said, girls don't get much of a look-in here because . . . well, they're girls. Paddy has two baby sisters, Catherine and Deirdre, but they're nothing more than household fixtures and Paddy mentions them in passing, in the way he might mention the gas stove or the water heater. We hear much more about the younger brother Sinbad, target of dead-legs and Chinese burns. Paddy flicks soap suds in his eyes, force-feeds him a fig roll, and shuts him in a large leather suitcase. You just can't have that kind of fun with babies.
Somewhat belatedly, Roddy Doyle is about to give up his day job. For the last 14 years, he has taught English and geography in north Dublin. Then again, if he had retired when sales of The Commitments went into orbit, perhaps we would never have met Paddy Clarke. Maybe only a teacher could have written this book: someone who takes children seriously for a living, someone who sees how they are when they aren't with their parents, watches them milling around in packs whose nervy community is caught by Doyle in the superb compression of: 'We heard something; Kevin did.'
It is common to pick up on Doyle for sentimentality, and to assert that his violence is normally only verbal, that the working-class families he envisages are too prone to smile adversity into submission. Paddy Clarke is not a book without dewy moments. Even the maligned Sinbad finally inspires a misty-eyed passage: 'When I asked myself why I hated him the only reason was that he was my little brother and that was all. Big brothers hated their little brothers. They had to. It was the rule. But they could like them as well. I liked Sinbad. I liked his size and his shape, the way his hair at the back went the wrong way.'
But a book about childhood which rigorously distanced itself from sentiment would be an eerie prospect. The fact is, while there is much here about the excitements of youth and the wonders of innocence, the book is also threaded through with unease. The kids play and slap each other around, and the parents work and slap each other around to the sickened bafflement of the children.
This is the gift of Paddy Clarke: it can dwell in detail on the smell of a hot water bottle, but, at the same time, it retains access to just how uncosy a boyhood can get. There is an extraordinary fight scene at one point, where Paddy doesn't receive the support he thought he could rely on, and an awful alienation hangs coldly in the air. 'No one had jumped in for me when Charles Leavy had been going to kill me; it took me a while to get used to that, to make it make sense. To make it alright. The quiet, the waiting. All of them looking. Kevin standing beside Sean Whelan. Looking.' Kids, eh?
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