SET, like Roddy Doyle's previous novels, in the fictional north Dublin suburb of Barrytown, this new one is a boy's own account of his doings there in 1968, when he was 10; told, not with hindsight, but as if he were still 10, and (until the last few pages) as if he would always be 10. Roddy Doyle was himself that age in 1968, and his small hero's name has the shape of his own. But whether we have pure prodigious memory to thank, or some even rarer gift, this must be one of the truest and funniest presentations of juvenile experience in any recent literature.
The novel's boldest feature is its infantile style of narrative. There are no chapter divisions, and the fragments assemble themselves in apparently unruly sequence, though a second look reveals a trail of unconscious associations. Paddy's account may be inefficient, incoherent and chronologically incapable, but there is never a glimpse of the author at his shoulder, directing operations or forcing him to dwell on portentous moments.
Many of Paddy's sentences are incongruously but amusingly graced with a semi-colon. This can be used to deflate his eagerness for adventure ('I felt the jellyfish hit my back; I thought I did') or to punctuate a nave but instructive logic: 'They were broken biscuits, a brown bag of them; there was nothing wrong with them except that they were broken.' Most typically, it shows the proximity in Paddy's reflexes of contending emotions, fear and pleasure, liking and hating: 'They were our friends because we hated them; it was good to have them around.' The daily exchange of harmless and even harmful violence - dead legs, 'prunings' - with which Paddy sustains his ambiguous friendships are part of the 10-year-old's illusion of immortality. The worst that can happen, after all, is that you get 'killed' - in Paddy's terminology, caught and severely reprimanded by a parent or teacher.
Since Paddy has so little apprehension of change, the first two-thirds of the book are an unsorted stream of games and lessons and inventive mischief, sustained, in the absence of plot, by Doyle's unwavering fascination with the commonplace. Its episodes are hardly to be appraised in adult terms, but they are treats to read. The biggest set-piece is an epic game of football in the road, four-a-side, with a ball that is 'a bit burst' between 'Northern Ireland' and 'Scotland':
And really, said the commentator. - Alan Gilzean seems to be making a bit of a meal of his little knock.
The funny thing was, Aidan was never like that - that funny - when he was just himself, when he wasn't commentating. Forty-two, thirty-eight to Northern Ireland. Kevin's neck was going red; he was going to lose.
Other games give vent to Paddy's verbal curiosity. In one, the boys each have to become a swear-word for the week. This is how 'the best word' makes its first appearance, exceptionally for a Doyle novel, as late as page 132 - 'I was Fuck' - before going on to enjoy another magical incarnation in the classroom: 'Fuck was always too loud, too late to stop it, it burst in the air above your head. There was total silence, nothing but Fuck floating down. For a few seconds you were dead, waiting for Henno to look up and Fuck landing on top of you . . . It was agony. We didn't waste it.'
The discovery of Fuck is growth of a sort, but the reader is on the look-out, through the thicket of Paddy's narration, for the sort of event that will bring about a real change of consciousness and turn his idyll of eternal scrapes into a novel. It comes in the form of the break-up of his parent's marriage. The first signs, on a rainy family picnic, are obscured by Paddy's concentration on the biscuits (Mariettas, called 'botty bickies' from the way the butter squeezes out of them). Later he becomes acutely sensitive to the discord, though no wiser as to its cause. When, in a scene of beautiful economy, his father eventually leaves home, Paddy can find no reason in his small bright mind 'why he hated Ma', since 'She was lovely looking, though it was hard to tell for sure'.
There is a parallel divorce of Paddy from his friends, a loss of the unthinking plural of the novel's first words, 'We were coming down our road'. Paddy is drawn away from friendship with his neighbour Kevin by his unreciprocated admiration for the surly, twitching loner Charles Leay, a hard case from the Corporation houses, whose spasms he dignifies as 'heading the imaginary ball'. A climactic fight with Kevin earns him a general boycott: 'I had Kevin's blood on my trousers. I was on my own.'
Now the novel's winning title finds its context, not as the happy hoot of Paddy's being, but in other voices chanting on the playground: 'Paddy Clarke - / Paddy Clarke - / Has no da / Ha ha ha.' The resilient hero has already adopted a new swagger, the worldliness of the man of the house: 'I didn't listen to them. They were only kids.' But Roddy Doyle's book has already dead-legged the assumption that grown-ups are more interesting. To borrow the formula: 'It was sad and brilliant; I liked it.'
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