The bard of Barrytown: Profile: Roddy Doyle

Just after the publication of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors in 1996, Roddy Doyle was standing in a bookshop when he was approached by the proprietor. "Could you do me a favour?" he asked. Sure, said Doyle, thinking the man wanted a book signed. "Next time," said the man, "would you write a comedy? Booksellers prefer it."

It was a very Woody Allen moment. In Allen's mid-career, when he was exploring the bittersweet territory of Manhattan, Stardust Memories, and Interiors, he became incensed by the constant refrain, from critics and public, of: "We preferred your early stuff, when you were funny". In Doyle's case, it seemed that his chatty domestic comedies of working-class Dublin life had atrophied into closely notated domestic tragedy - as if a smile has gradually been wiped off his face. From populating his fictional Dublin suburb with aspirant rock stars, shrieking teenage girls and their sardonic, seen-it-all parents, he had upended a large rock and discovered beneath it an 18-carat, wife-and-child-abusing, murderous bastard called Charlo (in The Family, screened on RTE and BBC) and a battered-but-devoted wife called Paula. People who had once praised the "realism" of his Barrytown wastrels and dreamers, with their salty dialogue and antiphonal exchanges of insult, started to complain that Doyle's moral hooligans and masochistic spouses were a damn sight too realistic for comfort: as if an Irish HE Bates had unexpectedly metamorphosed into an Irish Emile Zola.

Even with his gradually acquired reputation as a teller of uncomfortable truths, Doyle is, however, fantastically popular at home. Somebody worked out that four of his books are in the list of Ireland's Top 50 bestsellers (from any source) since the 1940s. He is read by Irish people who would otherwise never open a book in their lives - who include, for instance, people on drug rehabilitation programmes who are given The Woman Who... to read as part of an accompanying study course.

Does Mr Doyle hold up a mirror to Irish virtues (wit, street energy, resilience, individualism, humour) or to darker Irish traits (violence, drink, fecklessness, ingrown morality)? Is he determined to present the national psyche in a bad light - or simply to represent real people at the extremes of emotional trauma, and watch how they behave? Those are the non-literary questions that have turned him into a unique figure in the Republic. And his new novel is about to stir up a whole new Celtic wasps' nest.

It is called A Star Called Henry, and is a historical novel. That is, it invents a peculiar hero --a giant baby, a beautiful boy, the son of a brothel bouncer and alcoholic mother from the most Stygian depths of the Dublin slums - and plonks him, aged 14, in the thick of the Irish Rising. He walks through the barricades, searching for khaki to shoot at. He hangs out with De Valera, makes fun of the saintly but overweight, bicycle-riding Padraig Pearse and become Michael Collins's murderous sidekick. He becomes a blood-boltered killer, like his one-legged father before him, but a gloriously sexy killer, sanctioned by history and apotheosised by violence, even as he is excluded from the inner workings of revolutionary politics. He is a glowing baby turned irresistible hero, who does what he's told in an increasingly mad world. He is, or seems to be, a huge symbol of Irishness, an extraordinary production to emerge from the droll, watchful impresario of the Barrytown revels.

Roddy Doyle was born in Kilbarrack, five miles outside Dublin, in 1958. His father was a teacher of printing to apprentices at the local college of technology. The third of four siblings, he had, he reports, a happily unmemorable childhood, even while the countryside around his home was being developed and urbanised. At school he was reportedly beaten and mocked for stupidity by a brace of nasty teachers, which may or may not explain his chosen 14-year career. His grandfathers had fought in the Easter Rising, but they and their part in it were never discussed at home. Doyle told Andrew Billen of the Evening Standard that he learned about the 1916 Rising, the most significant date in Irish history, from a tea- towel commemorating its 50th anniversary.

His parents had hoped he might take up a steady profession, like banking, but, after taking a degree at University College Dublin, he taught English and Geography at Greendale Community School, where he got on best with the tough guys and hard nuts. He began writing plays in the evenings and a satirical state-of-the-nation novel called Your Granny's a Hunger Striker which never found a publisher. When he wrote The Commitments, he decided with characteristic enterprise, to publish it himself and founded a small publishing house called King Farouk (rhyming slang for "buke") with a friend. It had a small cult success, was discovered by an editor on the read-then-lose pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Heinemann, and within a year was being filmed by the great Alan Parker, with a cast of unknowns. He also met his future wife; she was the publisher's publicist.

Doyle was launched. Two more chronicles of the Barrytown Rabbitte family followed, The Snapper and The Van. Both were filmed. The Van was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Ireland had a new literary star. But did they want one who seemed either (depending whom you listened to) to sentimentalise the working class, or reveal their failings for the amusement of outsiders?

The new novel is already confusing its audience. English critics have been alternately savage and tender. "It isn't through reliance on second- hand facts but reliance on second-hand fantasy that this novel comes to grief," noted Peter Kemp, fiction editor of the Sunday Times, attacking its apparent naivete, melodrama and sentimentalising of Dublin's working classes before and during the Irish Rising of 1916. "It is dismaying," Kemp concludes, "to see that this novel is the first in what Doyle intends as trilogy. For with A Star Called Henry, his sparky talent disappears into a black hole." Patricia Craig, by contrast, writing in The Independent, discerned a quite different tendency - satiric deflation by aggrandisement. She interprets Doyle's headlong mythologising of Henry Smart as a subtle con-trick. "Henry is an amalgam of the legendary attributes of all the rogues and heroes, the chancers and charmers, who people the political drama... He is a device which allows the exuberant author to analyse the mechanics of revolutionary movements past and present", as they shift from idealism to pragmatic savagery. William Sutcliffe, in the Independent on Sunday, read the book's conclusion as an indictment of the heroism so confidently evoked all the way through. "In a few pages, the IRA manifesto in your hands turns into a book that challenges and questions the most sacred myths behind the birth of the Irish Republic." He has a closing word about the author's reputation: "Roddy Doyle, widely regarded as one of the most likeable men in modern literature, has set about making enemies". This seems a popular point of view. "This book has something to offend just about everybody," writes Roz Kaveney in Amazon.com's online review. And, from what little can be gleaned from the organisers of the Booker prize, the divisions that were apparent in the reactions of reviewers have been reflected in the responses of this year's judging panel.

What has brought about this shift in Doyle's literary ambitions, apart from a dislike of repeating his effects, seems to be a desire to join the international Premier League of novelists: specifically, the Rushdies, the Careys, the Rohinton Mistrys, writers in English who come from the perimeters of British cultural hegemony - India, Australia, Canada - but now regularly walk off with its glittering prizes. Doyle is going for big-league ambitiousness, scope, scale, world-encompassing historico- politico-comic-epic revisionism.

The quality of his prose has evolved, over the last decade, from pages of unmediated street slang ("`Fuck off, you, said Deco, - an' don't annoy me.' That's when Mickah stitched Deco a loaf, clean on the nose. It wasn't broken, but snot and blood fell out of it at a fierce speed"), through dialogue that both embodied working-class inarticulacy and hinted at a hundred things left unsaid beneath the litany of "Howyis" and "Feck off, you"; then to a gradual opening-out of description, as Jimmy Rabbitte Senior's redundant days are minutely scrutinised in The Van, and even the ritual attending on his breakfast tea-mug is rapturously evoked. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (which won the Booker prize in 1993 and still holds the record for the best-selling Booker winner ever) offered an unbeatable guide to the sense-data of the 10-year-old, its pages full of Fanta and farts and 99 Flakes and Manchester United and being dimly aware that your parents' marriage is terminally rocky. Its short, explanatory sentences brought you 10-year-old logic and certainties that shaded into confusion; Doyle the schoolmaster using simplicity to teach a lesson in disillusionment. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors returned to the school-of-Nabokov close- up annotations: it begins with Paula Spencer remembering the way appalling Charlo's cigarette used to stick, for a second, to his upper lip after he dragged on it, in a perfect image of self-destructive yearning.

A Star Called Henry is a quantum leap for this cautious and unpretentious storyteller. His earlier naturalism has been replaced by a kind of heartless exuberance, shot through with magic realism, in which the tones of Barrytown and Paddy Clarke are still just discernible: "We'd hound the cows into one of the corners and beat their heads with sticks and bits of brick; we'd climb on to the wall to get at their heads. They were stupid but they eventually died... I slit one bullock's throat when it was still running and me running under it. I felt its scorching blood on my head before I got away and I felt the life charge out of it and felt the weight of its death as it fell". From this, the dramatis personae of dwarfs, prostitutes and one-legged murderers, and the irruption of Henry, like Woody Allen's Zelig, into the key moments of revolutionary Irish history, it's clear we're in Phantasmagorical History Land, a territory familiar from Midnight's Children and DeLillo's Underworld. The book is the first of a promised series called The Last Round-Up. Earlier interviews hinted at an epic comedy told by a 94-year-old Republican fantasist who lies, Munchausen- esquely, about his role in Irish 20th-century history. The parallels with the galloping tall tales of Illywhacker by Peter Carey - the Booker- winning Australian author of Oscar and Lucinda - are a little alarming.

Doyle's relationship with Ireland has always been a little odd. His background is too comfortable for him to be a hero of the working class he so vividly animates, but he is too uncomfortably a truth-teller for bourgeois sensibilities. He's too Irish to be swept up by modern English literary traditions (although he and Nick Hornby form a warm mutual-appreciation society), but his imagination has clearly outgrown the dysfunctional households of Barrytown. This enthusiastic (if ambiguous) celebrant of the revolutionary spirit enjoys the dubious pleasure of finding his books being studied on the Leaving Cert syllabus. He is accepted as a star called Roddy, while remaining a shape-changing irritant called Doyle.

It is clear, of course, that he will go on writing his own sweet way, unbothered by the cavils of his countrymen and his pooh-poohing British critics. It is also clear that, straddling two centuries with his extraordinary imagination, Roddy Doyle has embarked, a little self-consciously, on writing The Great Irish Novel. But whether the Irish nation - rather than the wider world of modern fiction readers - will thank him for it remains to be seen.

Life Story

Born: 1958. Grew up in Kilbarrack, which translates into the fictional location of Barrytown in his novels

Family: His parents, Rory and Ita, have lived in Kilbarrack for nearly 50 years

Married: for 10 years to Belinda Moller, PR on The Commitments. They live in Dublin with their two boys, Rory, eight, and Jack, seven, and a baby girl. They also have a cottage in Wexford

Education: Famously learnt the proclamation of Irish independence from the Easter Rising, 1916, off a tea-towel, at a school run by Christian Brothers. Studied at University College, Dublin, where he abandoned history after a year. Graduated with a general arts degree

Teaching career: English and geography at Greendale Community School, Dublin,

1979-1993

Works: The Commitments, published in 1987 (and made into a hit film in 1991, below) after Your Granny's a Hunger Striker was abandoned. The Snapper (1990) and The Van, shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, followed. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1994 became the best-selling Booker winner in the history of the prize. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, 1996. A Star Called Henry will be published by Jonathan Cape later this month

He says: "A lot of people who don't usually read literary works do read my books finally"

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