THE SMILER MAKES A KILLING

Roddy Doyle has produced his first novel since his Booker prizewinner: more than a purely local creation, his housewife-heroine is an Everywoman of our times
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HUMANITY and artistry parted company long ago. Novelists in the 19th century were consulted as oracles or agony aunts by their troubled readers. Then came the modernists, who shed their sickness in their books, as D H Lawrence boasted, and neither offered nor expected solicitude. Roddy Doyle disarmingly returns to the humane outlook of the 19th-century novelist, and he therefore worries critics as much as he delights his multitudes of readers. His popularity is a direct consequence of his populism; the man himself - sympathetic, convivial, forgiving the world its follies as if laughter were a sufficient penance - is as good as his books.

He does his best to impersonate a tough guy. The gold stud in his ear is a memento of his school-teaching days, when it warned his disruptive pupils that he had a pain threshold as high as theirs. His hair has been recently crew-cut, though that decision was not stylistic: "It's fallin' out!" he wailed when I asked about it. His leather jacket, rather than signalling menace, is as soft as his wry, cherubic face.

Because Doyle is so bluffly unpresumptuous, it's easy to underestimate him. Contrary to rumour, he does not slouch around Dublin collecting dialogue overheard in bars. His novels are not slavish documentations; they celebrate imagination's power to alter and overcome a constricting reality. The Van is about a farcical fish and chip shop on wheels. Though he swears by fried food - "Ah now, there's nothing like a good bag of chips, I could live on 'em" - Doyle proudly asserts that he has never set foot in any such vehicle. "When Stephen Frears made the film of it, there were three vans on the set. I kept well clear of 'em all. Maybe I'm superstitious. At school I'd encourage my students to set their stories in New Delhi, anywhere but Dublin. I'd tell them to go and look at a menu outside an Indian take-away if they wanted to do research."

The members of the band in The Commitments displace their grim, grotty hometown to an imaginary America when they play their own brand of "Dublin soul". The 10-year-old boy in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha uses his creative talent to control a disintegrating world. Telling lies, he revises and aggrandises the truth. Words are his weapons, an arsenal of spells: "Fuck was the best word. The most dangerous word. You couldn't whisper it." And in Doyle's new novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, an abused, alcoholic, under-educated wife - despite having read nothing much except paperbacks by Catherine Cookson and Shirley Conran scavenged from bins in the offices she cleans - settles down to write a book in which she reinterprets her own history and promotes herself to the status of a heroine.

"Yes," said Doyle, "she's doing the same thing as me - only I have a bit more practice. That's why the chapters are numbered in this one, a huge technical innovation for me. I thought that Paula would probably start by putting a big 1 at the top of the first page. Actually she's a modernist, though she doesn't know it. She strays away from chronology when it suits her, and she shifts between the past tense and the present. It's not that anyone can write a novel. There are some of us who definitely can't - and that includes quite a number who get published. I just think that there are very few stupid people in the world. There's such creativity in the way ordinary people use language - in slang, for instance. Writing is only one step further on. The good thing is that it's cheap, you don't need lots of fancy equipment. After that, getting published is a matter of luck."

Though it seems implausibly cosy, this democratic credo corresponds to Doyle's own experience. When no one would publish his first novel, he published his next, The Commitments, himself. "I went into partnership with John Sutton, a friend of mine from university who was struggling to run a theatre company. The bank loan was no more than you'd need to buy a good second-hand car. I didn't have a mortgage then, so I could afford it." Publishing the book, like forming a band, was an exercise in the creation of a community, relying on friendships Doyle has loyally maintained: we met in the Dublin office of Sutton's graphic design company. "The publishers in London say John's my agent. Well, I think he can read, but I doubt that there's such a thing as a literary agent in all of Ireland. Sometimes we call him my manager, though that makes him sound like Colonel Tom Parker. I had other friends who helped with the proof-reading, and we stuck some of my students on the cover."

Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, putting on a show in the barn which then magically transfers to Broadway?

"Quite right," said Doyle. "My wife did the publicity, that's how I met her. She played Judy Garland. Without the drink problem, I might add."

Doyle's gift for friendship overlaps with the rarest of his novelistic skills: an empathy which enables him to inhabit Paula's bruised, hard- bitten skin. "It was just a matter of finding the words she'd use, not the ones I'd use myself. I did some research too. For the part where she has a crush on a bus conductor, I read up about women's sexual fantasies. My wife," Doyle grinned, "appreciated that." The communion is so close that the minds of Doyle and Paula seem to change places. She has an artist's sensibility, and likens her job cleaning other peoples' houses to "being a spy or reading a book"; Doyle, who works at home now he has given up teaching, shares her fascination with domestic routines and knows, as she puts it, that "it's hard to hide in a house full of kids, to pretend there's no one there".

"I've a room of my own," he said, "reasonably quiet. But I wouldn't want utter solitude." I mentioned a recent interview in which Martin Amis bemoaned the vocational agony of the novelist. Writing novels, Amis claimed - with that grimace of existential martyrdom he affects nowadays - is about never leaving the house.

"Shite," scoffed Doyle, for whom domestication is no penance. A house is full of ordinary life, waiting to be made extraordinary: Paula marvels at the way her mother-in-law spreads butter straight from the fridge, and studies a pile of discarded tea bags in the sink, steaming like horse manure.

His scorn revealed the limits of his geniality. He views the pretensions of literary London from a distance which can be amused or contemptuous, depending on how you read the curl of his lips. The Ha Ha Ha in the title of his previous novel is, after all, a refrain of derision, not of merriment.

His detractors suggest that Doyle is too good to be true. Not so: after 14 years as a schoolteacher, he's an expert on the thuggery, treachery and psychological filth of the playground. But perhaps he is too good to be able to tell the truth about the irredeemable Charlo, Paula's husband. Charlo batters Paula, plans a sexual attack on their daughter, and stupidly kills a woman during a bungled robbery. A Satan of the slums, he demonstrates his nihilism by burning money with which Paula might have fed their kids. He even comes kitted out in a devilishly sexy bomber jacket. Paula, before routing him with her trusty frying pan, twice calls him evil.

I asked Doyle about that charged adjective, which seems out of place in Paula's earthily humdrum vocabulary. "We need reminding that we live in a violent society. Once you begin to look at what's under the stones, it robs you of your comfortable certainties. I'm not only thinking of what the Provos and their Unionist counterparts get up to. There was a spate of particularly nasty kidnappings in Ireland a few years ago - vicious, pointless crimes." He shuddered at the recollection of unmentionable details, and added "but I wanted Charlo to be human, not just an evil person. As a criminal, he's hopeless." Then he laughed, as if to exorcise the demon he had created.

The novel turns this monster into an endearing rogue, which is a way of evading what Paula, when she hears about the murder, calls "the hugeness of it". Charlo the petty crook quixotically buys the balaclava which he wears as camouflage. He is shot by the Gardai when he jumps into a getaway car: he has forgotten that he doesn't know how to drive. Doyle chuckled over this incident, counting ineffectualness as grounds for pardon. Paula, despite Charlo's brutality, can't rid herself of his musky allure. Doyle has a similar problem: how does a novelist who loves his characters cope with a villain? Despite his defiant atheism, Doyle's good nature afflicts him with the eternal optimism of the parish priest, confident that holy water will launder all sins.

He admitted the problem. "The book was always going to be written by Paula, but at first he was the main character in it. She was even going to call it Charlo. Then I finally decided he was dead ..."

The phrase, with its strange impersonality, puzzled me. I asked Doyle what exactly he meant, and he forced himself to use the words he had been hoping to avoid. "Yes, I killed him. Why? Well, I'm not sure exactly."

His unease revealed how disagreeable the experience was. Cueing the Gardai to gun Charlo down at least got him out of the book, but only by using Charlo's own ruthless methods. Such interventions do not come naturally to Doyle, who would rather give birth to characters than kill them off. He disparages omniscient narration, precisely because it assumes the narrator's power over people. This is why his Barrytown trilogy - The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van - consists mostly of dialogue: other people speak through the ventriloquistic Doyle, while he remains silent. His two subsequent novels were written by Paddy and Paula, using Doyle as their agent, manager or editor. With Charlo, Doyle has intervened for the first time in one of his own plots. Executive power is a temptation most novelists cannot resist: they slaughter characters to satisfy fantasies of personal revenge. Doyle, having tasted blood, is not so sure that he likes it.

Still perturbed by Charlo, I wondered whether his incompetence was enough to excuse him. The amiable proviso is characteristic of Doyle, and possibly of Ireland. The band in The Commitments disperses just as success seems likely, and Bimbo in The Van, as if embarrassed by the profitability of his chipper, drives it into the sea. Why are the romantic Celts so much in love with failure? Should we smile on the IRA because they managed not to blow up Thatcher and her Cabinet in Brighton?

I was provoked to ask Doyle this by my misadventures on the Irish airline which took me to meet him in Dublin. After a long delay on the ground, a pilot in a cardigan strolled out from the cockpit to make an announcement. He had to do it in person, because the loudspeaker was suffering from bronchitis. The announcement, inflected in a lyrical brogue, was this: "Ladies and gentlemen, we should all have stayed in bed this morning." No engineer had turned up to clear the plane; we could not leave. Sending us off in search of another aircraft, a stewardess from Galway beamed. "Nice having you on board - even though we didn't take you anywhere." Much later, we hurtled from the weeping sky and jerked to a halt on the Dublin runway. Another mellifluous voice guffawed from the controls: "At least the brakes work!" No steps, however, arrived at the open door. Herded back down the aisle, we were forced to squeeze through a sphincter in the plane's rear. Yet these tribulations were served up with indomitable good cheer. Is inefficiency, in Ireland, a credential of sainthood?

Doyle listened with his usual forbearance, then shook his head. "It's the drummer who breaks up the Commitments, and that's what happens with these bands. Most of them last about nine months, and the drummer is always the first to drop out. Usually he goes into hospital with an overdose, or has a car crash and comes back with some extra artificial limbs - an enhanced drum kit, you might say. Anyway, it's no great national tragedy. Think of the Rolling Stones, that sad-lookin' bunch o' eejits. They should have broke up years ago too! As for Bimbo, I think that's a noble decision he makes when he drowns the van. He's choosing friendship with Jimmy over money. Lots o' people abandon their cars on the beach at Dollymount when they're drunk. And who knows? Bimbo probably went back with a spade and shovel next day to dig the van out ..."

Behind his smile, I think Doyle was agreeing with me, while blithely denying that failure - as our common mortal lot - is something to be ashamed of. Comedy, like Catholicism, understands the futility of expecting people to be better than they are. In America, he has been arraigned by the Political Correctness Police: "I had a woman journalist lecture me because Sharon in The Snapper smokes and drinks while she's pregnant - as if I could've changed Sharon's habits! Then she told me she had a major problem with Bimbo leaving the van in the water. 'Don't you realise,' she said, 'he's polluting one of our most precious resources?' I wish she could see Dollymount Strand. The place is a toilet!" He roared with glee at the thought of the bubbling effluents.

Radical critics nearer home wanted Jimmy in The Snapper to protest against unemployment, rather than enjoyably occupying his leisure by reading Victorian novels. "They don't understand that being out of a job makes you passive. You spend a lot of time in bed, and you can't be angry while you're asleep." His television series The Family, which introduced Paula and Charlo, was decried because the Spencers were not whimsically feckless, like the Rabbittes in the Barrytown books: "Sure, they're wrecks, they're ruins. What people hated was that the series began four days after the Eurovision Song Contest, when they had Riverdance on with those folksy jigs of theirs - the Ireland that the tourist industry wants to promote. I can't help that. Without humour, there's no honesty."

Despite the name chosen by the band in his novel, Doyle himself remains - as a matter of professional principle - teasingly, sagely uncommitted. "It's why I'm a novelist. I try to see all sides. You remember the hunger strikers in the H-blocks in the early 1980s? It was hard not to be moved by that - these men slowly dying while Thatcher stomped around in her bright blue dresses, slagging them off. But I was disgusted when everyone here started wearing black arm-bands. That wasn't protest, it was a uniform, a fashion accessory. And I began to think about who the hunger strikers were - murderers, planters of bombs: people I really could not sympathise with."

In The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle has chosen to write about domestic violence rather than ideological vendettas, perhaps because it's easier to foresee a happy ending for an individual than for a country ravaged by familial feuds. The novel juggles chronology to improve Paula's chances. It begins with Charlo's death, but ends - after she has written her own life and gained control of her fate - at an earlier point in time, when she triumphantly expels him from the house. This last scene is repeated, as if Paula needs to convince herself of her good fortune by telling the story twice. Doyle dismissed my suspicion of sentimental wishful thinking, and insisted that Paula had done it all on her own. "Her independence is a huge achievement for someone from the working class. A middle-class woman in her position would have known how to drive: she could have escaped. And she'd have access to money, she'd have gone to see a bank manager. The last time Paula saw the inside of a bank, she was probably cleaning it."

Paddy Clarke play-acts killing his brother, but panics when he thinks he might actually have harmed him. The elimination of Charlo distressed Doyle because he has a justified conviction that his characters exist outside his books, and that their lives continue after he stops writing about them. His readers repay the compliment, gratefully recognising the characters as extensions of themselves. "If we could give Paula flesh, then the real Paula and all her neighbours would probably be reading me! I love the thought that they sell my books in supermarkets and newsagents."

The films of his novels - Alan Parker's Commitments, Frears's Van - confirm this faith, as actors literally lend their own flesh to Doyle's words. So he has promised Paula a sequel: "I want to write another book about her - not the next one, that's about a 94-year-old man who claims to have been bang in the middle of most of the 20th century's great events. Of course he's a monumental liar. He's probably not even as old as he says he is. I had trouble with him at first: it was still Paula talking, not this old fart. She wouldn't let go. She's more or less my age, and I want to come back to her when we're both older. To see how she's getting on - to see how we're both doing."

I might have thought Doyle too good a man for our wretched times if I hadn't, on the way back to London, been treated to a double dose of the Irish comic spirit, cheerily battling against a tragic history. There was a road-block near the airport. While police with machine guns questioned drivers, youths who shivered in the drizzle pressed pamphlets against the windscreens of stalled cars.

"It's the unemployed," explained my taxi driver. "They're selling bukes."

A book in Dublin is a buke, or anything which the irrepressible local dialect contrives to rhyme with it: Doyle's home-made edition of The Commitments was published under the imprint King Farouk. The buke on sale at the road- block, scratchily stencilled on someone's kitchen table, was a collection of jokes. Its title? The Smiler, even though the men with the machine guns were glowering.

Later an old woman, hobbling onto the plane ahead of me, poked the brass- buttoned chest of the steward at the door. "Now this isn't going to crash," she said, "Is it?"

"Oo now," he replied, with another of those beatific smiles, "I guarantee you that for sure. No, it certainly won't do what you're asking!"

And, fortuitously, it didn't. Holy Ireland has not quite used up its store of miracles. Against all the odds it can persuade you, as Doyle's fiction does, that life might merit a happy ending.

! 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors' is published this week by Jonathan Cape at pounds 14.99

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