When I made my First Communion, a famously bitter Catholic aunt of mine took me into a side-chapel of our church. She wrapped me up in her arms, right in the middle of all her perfumery, straightened my red sash, and told me I was ‘blessed, blessed, blessed’. Then out of her bag she handed me a wooden crucifix with a luminous lime-green Christ glued onto it. ‘It’s from The Grotto,’ she whispered. ‘Keep it beside you.’
I always did keep it beside me, as it turned out. It glowed for years on my bedroom wall between the Communion certificate and a picture of Marilyn Monroe leaning over a veranda in The Seven-Year Itch. I’ve always associated that crucifix with the break-up of my mother and father’s marriage. I used to lie back in the darkness of that damp little box-room and listen to them fighting downstairs. I’d tremble a bit, hearing their harsh voices and their slapping and banging around. As I listened, I’d bite the feet of the green Christ; I’d take it off the wall and bile His feet.
One night, after a raging argument between them, they went to separate beds leaving a window open. The house got robbed: my clock, camera and binoculars got nicked off the table beside my bed. The crucifix – with Christ bitten up to the knee by now – was left on the table by itself. They started arguing the minute I got up and told them things were missing. A few days later, I smashed the cross in a fit of something; just broke the green man to bits. I then went downstairs and caught them slapping like crazy outside the kitchen. He stood by the door with a couple of Tesco bags filled with jumpers and stuff. His face was crimson. My mother led me by the head into the kitchen and closed the door.
Paddy Clarke, the ten-year-old hero of Roddy Doyle’s remarkable new novel, rocks at night to the sound of his parents’ scratching at the usual matrimonial sores. The intermittent din of their growing unhappiness is the primary soundtrack to his life at home. We watch him try to make sense of it, to explain it both to himself and his brother Sinbad (whom he calls Francis in moments of seriousness);
– Can you hear them? Francis?
That was all. I knew he wouldn’t say any more. We listened to the sharp mumbles coming up from downstairs. We did, not just me. We listened for a long time. The silences were worst, waiting for it to start again, or louder. A door sort of slammed; the back door – I heard the glass shake.
– That’s what it’s like every night.
He said nothing.
– It’s like that every night, I said ...
– It’s only talking, he said.
– It’s not.
– It is.
– It’s not; they’re shouting.
Paddy Clarke worries about things; but he has a good time lighting fires and writing his name with sticks in wet cement. He and his pal Kevin use the building sites over at the new corporation houses as adventure playgrounds and jump off the jetty during games of Journey To The Bottom Of The Sea. He wants to be George Best, is always on the look-out for horrible ways to die, and has vivid explanations for everything:
Some of us weren’t allowed to swim down at die seafront. If you cut your toe on a rock you’d get polio. A boy from Barrytown Drive, Seán; Rickard, died and it was supposed to have been be cause he’d swallowed a mouthful of the seafront water. Someone else said he’d swallowed a gobstopper and it got caught in his windpipe.
Death and destruction fascinate them. They think it would be brilliant and cool to have a dead mother like their pals Liam and Aidan. When not sharing a box of Swan Vestas, Paddy and Kevin like to pour salt on slugs and then give them a decent burial. They wonder why the Yankees are fighting Gorillas in Vietnam and wait to see if die teacher will use the word ‘balls’ or ‘mickey’ or ‘testicles’ in the middle of a warning about the dangers of ‘pruning’ (a game of snatching at your pal’s cock through his trousers in the playground).
Paddy Clarke is a terrific creation: a juvenile sensationist with enthusiasms and ideas as quick and darting as the movement of his small feet across open grass. And all the while, the hum of his parents’ crack-up presses its way into his head. No previous character of Doyle’s has had this degree of interior life, nor anything like Paddy’s capacity for wonder.
Not that Doyle’s previous novels are at all lifeless or shy. Doyle has shown himself to be a writer who can make language dance in front of him. The three novels which make up the Barrytown Trilogy – The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van – concentrate on members of the Rabbitte family and their crowd, and each is jammed with rattling patter, with great gab and gags, with men slagging their mothers-in-law and keening to ride (or ‘roide’) brassy young girls. That’s the way Doyle’s men think of women and that’s the way his women think of men and that’s the kind of writer he is. No one writing fiction is better than Doyle at uncovering life inside council houses and getting at the buzz on corporation estates. The houses in Doyle’s fiction seem magical and real at the same time: kids – all with different haircuts and hobbies – scream and beat their way up and down the stairs, traipse in and out of the back-garden, slide headlong down the banister. Look at this chaotic minute in the life of the Rabbitte family, from The Snapper:
– I spent hours making those skirts for you two little rips –
– They’re stupid, said Linda.
She hadn’t meant to say that. She knew she’d made a mistake but she hated those skirts, especially her own one.
The hours she’d wasted; cutting, clipping, sewing, making mistakes, starting again.
Jimmy Sr threw his knife and fork onto the plate.
– Wha’ kind of a fuckin’ house is this at all? he asked the table.
He looked at Veronica. She was deciding if she’d throw the marmalade at the twins ...
– Hi-dee-hi, campers, Jimmy Jr greeted them all when he came into the kitchen.
– Fuck off, Jimmy Sr shouted.
One of the aces brought off by Stephen Frears in his recent film of The Snapper was to capture this household madness: a chaotic glue in which all matters – serious or trivial – are suspended. Cupboards are jammed with linen, damp towels cover the bathroom floor, siblings are torturing each other in the back bedroom, one of the twins is marching out into the garden wearing her full majorette costume and a face full of shaving foam. Meanwhile, at the kitchen table, Sharon tries to confess to her parents that she is pregnant. Such detail, in all its noisy, full-colour movement, is seldom got on film and even more rarely got in fiction.
In The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van narrative is propelled by the creation of something new – a soul band, a baby and a chip van respectively – which, for a short time, alters everyone’s life. Along the way something always happens which acts as a test of people’s true feelings: usually a threat of break-down, of resentment swelling to bursting point. In The Van, Jimmy Rabbitte Sr to the growing resentment between him and his pal Bimbo – unemployed men who became partners in a chip van – as being ‘like a film about a marriage break-up’. It causes them to reassess their whole enterprise. The real centre of The Snapper is the point where Jimmy has to decide which of two loyalties means most to him: loyalty to his daughter, who’s ‘up the pole’, or loyalty to his sense of himself, to the old-fashioned kind of man he has been until now. In The Commitments, animosity towards Deco, the singer, threatens to overwhelm the group before they strike up a single note. In the end, jealousy about who’s screwing Imelda, one of the backing singers, precipitates an on-stage bloodbath.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha has no such pivotal moment. We’re not with the Rabbittes, or Jimmy Jr’s mental musician pals, but with the Clarkes, an altogether quieter family. And the Clarke adults – though they have their own pivotal moments and points of crisis – are somewhere in the background. Like its predecessors, the novel is driven by dialogue and firmly rooted in the Barrytown terrain. Yet it is played in a different key. The dialogue spoken in Doyle’s other books is often hilarious but it is always hilarious for the same reason, for all the characters (men, women and kids) speak the same way. Young Paddy Clarke’s language emerges from his preoccupations: he speaks with a voice like no one else’s.
Doyle’s imagined community, his little world of Barrytown, begins, with this book, to look something like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. It’s a place on its own, where people work and dream and drink and worry. It’s also a place where people struggle against time; a place where people think and are thought of – and all at some distance from the world outside. Paddy Clarke, with his lyrical perceptions and his mad talk, has dimensions we might recognise in Benjy, the idiot man from The Sound and the Fury. Benjy’s state of mind, just like Paddy’s, causes him to see and express things in a way adults don’t properly understand:
Mr Patterson was chopping in the green flowers. He stopped chopping and looked at me. Mrs Patterson came across the garden, running. When I saw her eyes I began to cry ... I could smell the clothes flapping, and the smoke blowing across the branch.
There are no resounding moments of revelation for Benjy or for Paddy Clarke. Small, barely discernible tragedies mingle with their play and (briefly) interrupt the flow of their senses. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha Doyle writes sentences which carry the full flavour of his character’s innocence and confusion.
‘Insistence on childhood is the radical defect of most ordinary novels of today,’ Cyril Connolly wrote in 1935; and there still are plenty of novelists malingering in their childhood, rooting around for sunny days and glorious oppositions to the hard adult world. Doyle is not one of them: his triumph in this novel is to replenish our sense of how children think and speak and explain the adult world to themselves. For Paddy, as for many of us, after the long drone of adults fighting came the raw sound of them finally splitting. It all came quickly. Then there was just him, lying there thinking about what had happened:
My da hat more wrong with him than my ma. There was nothing wrong with my ma except sometimes she was too busy. My da sometimes lost his temper and he liked it. He had black things across the top of his back, like black insects clinging onto him. I’d seen them; about five of them in a bendy row. I’d seen them when I was watching him shaving ... He was useless at lots of things. He never finished games. He read the newspapers. He coughed. He sat too much.
That’s as vivid as it ever need be. And Paddy will soon have to cope with the rhymesters in the playground: ‘Paddy Clarke, Paddy Clarke Has no da. Ha ha ha.’ ‘I didn’t listen to them,’ Paddy says. ‘They were only kids.’
Paddy Clarke, with his love of the smell of hot-water bottles and his desire to go blind and read Braille, is a narrator in whom you can trust. He realises, at the end, that his mother is not hugging him but holding onto him. When his father disappears behind the glass door, he knows he won’t be coming back. My own mother for years kept a fridge die same as the one in Paddy Clarke’s house: a K-E-L-V-I-N-A-T-O-R (he loves to spell it out). My father had bought it. Though he’d been gone a long time, the fridge remained, with burn marks all round the rim where he used to balance his smoking fag while cooking.
‘We got rid of the old fridge,’ my ma told me on the phone the other day.
‘Really? So what did you do with it, sell it?’
‘No. We could’ve got a few quid for it but you know, we wanted it out of the way.’
‘So where is it?’ I asked, my head not quite in the present.
‘We all took it to the top of the old dump,’ she said, ‘and threw it right in.’
I pictured the old Kelvinator tumbling further and further down the hill and thought of Paddy Clarke. ‘Good job,’ I said.