On St. Patrick’s Day, 1943, Éamon de Valera, Ireland’s prime minister and founding father, gave what his biographer Diarmaid Ferriter has uncontroversially called “the most famous broadcast of any Irish politician of the twentieth century.” “The ideal Ireland,” de Valera began,
would be…a land whose countryside would be bright with cozy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry…and the laughter of happy maidens…. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live…. It was the idea of such an Ireland—happy, vigorous, spiritual—that…made successive generations of patriotic men give their lives to win religious and political liberty.
Thirty years into Roddy Doyle’s career, it doesn’t feel much of an exaggeration to suggest that his fiction represents—consciously or otherwise—a systematic, almost clause-by-clause dismantling of de Valera’s vision.
For one thing, de Valera’s Ireland apparently consisted only of countryside, fields, and villages, with no mention of such un-Gaelic monstrosities as cities. Yet Doyle has always been, very deliberately, a Dublin writer. “I think Dublin is more significant to me than my country,” he once said. “If a Dublin passport existed, I’d want one of them, really.” Early in his first novel, The Commitments (1987), the lead character made the bracing, if now slightly awkward, declaration that “the Irish are the niggers of Europe…. An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. The culchies [derogatory slang for rural people] have fuckin’ everythin’.”
The Commitments, together with the two novels that followed, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991), all feature the cheerfully foulmouthed Rabbitte family; all were made into films; and they quickly established Doyle as a writer who combined wide popular appeal with enough critical respect for The Van to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. They also established the ability of his seemingly (but only seemingly) unvarnished prose—with its preference for short sentences, its heavy reliance on dialogue, and all that swearing—to provide rich and sympathetic character studies.
Despite occasional hints of the darker themes to come, these books were essentially celebrations of working-class Dublin life. They even contained plenty of the laughter of happy maidens—if possibly not the kind of maidens that de Valera had in mind. In The Snapper, for example, one young woman provokes female hilarity by remarking of her ex, “I’d shag the Elephant Man before I’d let him go near me again, the prick.” In its own way, too, the Rabbittes’ homestead was distinctly cozy—although the family’s expressions of love might not necessarily have met with de Valera’s approval either. “I think you’re fuckin’ great,” Jimmy Sr. tells his twenty-five-year-old son at one particularly tender moment in The Van. “You’re not a bad oul’ cunt yourself,” Jimmy Jr. replies.
But as it turned out, Doyle’s homesteads wouldn’t stay cozy for long. In 1993 came Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, set in 1968 and narrated by a ten-year-old boy whose parents are splitting up. The novel went one better than The Van by winning the Booker Prize, and it topped the Irish best-seller list for a year—by which point Doyle was a bona fide national hero.
Until, that is, May 8, 1994, when Irish television began broadcasting his series Family. Once again, the setting was the sort of north Dublin neighborhood where the Rabbittes lived. This time, though, the father was Charlo Spencer, a wife-beating drunk who terrorized his family over four episodes of virtually unrelieved grimness. “It caused a storm,” Doyle recalled seventeen years later. “The celebrity status that attached to me when I won the Booker, invitations to open supermarkets and all that shite—it stopped the day Family was broadcast. There were accusations…that I was undermining marriage…. I got death threats.” Even so, his defiant response was the gut-wrenching novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), which filled in the backstory of Charlo’s alcoholic wife, Paula, and gave us further horrifying details of her husband’s violence.
Nor did Doyle seek to ingratiate himself back into mainstream Irish affections with his next project, the most ambitious he’s ever done. On the contrary: The Last Round-Up trilogy, starting with A Star Called Henry (1999), took a transparent relish in widening his assaults on what he regarded as his country’s illusions.
The trilogy traced the life of Henry Smart from his birth in the Dublin slums in 1901 to his part in the IRA peace process in 2009. And Henry’s longevity was by no means the only improbable element in the tale of a man who, having taken part in the 1916 Uprising and the Irish War of Independence, found himself disillusioned with the authoritarian Catholic Ireland that emerged. Moving to America, he befriended Louis Armstrong, before crawling “into the desert to die” and coming “back from the dead when Henry Fonda pissed on me.”
Doyle’s new taste for wild coincidence and intermittent magic realism made for a sometimes odd read—most strikingly in the trilogy’s second book, Oh, Play That Thing (2004), set in America, where Henry’s experiences felt not so much picaresque as entirely arbitrary. Nevertheless, there was no mistaking the thoroughness of Doyle’s attacks on Irish republican myths—or, if you prefer, on the “successive generations of patriotic men” who gave “their lives to win religious and political liberty.”
De Valera’s 1943 broadcast duly gave special credit to the Irish Volunteers, the most religiously motivated of the groups involved in the Uprising. Henry duly didn’t agree—and for familiar Doyle reasons: “Jesus, I hated the Volunteers. The poets and the farm boys, the fuckin’ shopkeepers. They detested the slummers—the accents and the dirt, the Dublinness of them.” At one point he also bumped into de Valera himself, who apparently “smelt of shite.”
The trilogy was just as combative when it came to explaining how the republican myths were constructed. Another improbable development, in The Dead Republic (2010), was Henry’s return to Ireland as the IRA consultant on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Initially, the idea was to tell Henry’s story, but Ford soon realized that wasn’t what Irish-American audiences would want to see:
—We shot a cop [I told Ford].
—Yeah, I said.—The police were Irish…
—We’ll make him English, said Ford.—Keep it simple.
In the end, of course, The Quiet Man left all political unpleasantness behind in favor of what Ford approvingly described in the novel as “making this leprechaun Ireland”—and Henry, less approvingly, as “the shite they [the de Valera faction] said they wanted…A rural Ireland, the simple life.”
As the book reached the end of the twentieth century, Doyle also reminded us what the generations of patriotic men were up to at the time: “They tore up Enniskillen, they made human bombs out of terrified husbands, they kneecapped men because they didn’t like them…they shifted heroin. They killed children in Warrington and shopkeepers in London.”
All in all, then, given Doyle’s record of heresy and his longstanding suspicion of religion in all its forms,1 it’s surprising that not until Smile has he concentrated his efforts on the cornerstone of de Valera’s whole vision: the Irish Catholic Church—particularly after all the gruesome revelations of how extensively it has used its control of the education system to carry out, and cover up, the sexual abuse of children.
Admittedly, his previous books have taken plenty of sideswipes at Irish Catholicism. “Teaching,” one of the quietly dazzling short stories about middle-aged men that comprise the collection Bullfighting (2011), now feels like a dry-run for Smile, with an unnamed protagonist whose life—and especially sexual life—seems oddly stalled for reasons we never discover. We do learn, however, that at his Christian Brothers school, Brother Flynn took an embarrassing shine to him—which may have led to something more serious the day Flynn looked after him when he was ill, although “his memory stopped, at the man tucking the blanket under the boy’s chin.” Nonetheless, Doyle’s new novel is the first he’s written in which the form of religion most squarely in his sights is the Catholic Church.
The main character and narrator is Victor Forde, initially seen in that commonest of Doyle settings, the pub. After separating from his wife, Rachel, Victor has moved back to the working-class area where he grew up, and comes to Donnelly’s every evening in the quest for company. To begin with, this is supplied only by the bartender. Then Victor is approached by Ed Fitzpatrick, a man he doesn’t recognize but who’s soon reminiscing about their days together at a Christian Brothers school, at which extreme violence from the teachers was the unreported norm. (“The Brothers knew they were safe.”) Victor dislikes him on sight—and dislikes him even more when Fitzpatrick asks, “What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you?” The answer, as Victor reluctantly acknowledges, is Brother Murphy, who once announced in class, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile,” making him an inevitable target for bullying. “I was stuck with it,” Victor remembers. “I became the Queer”—a word, needless to say, still resolutely unreclaimed in 1970s Ireland.
From there, the novel shifts between the present day, more memories of school, and what happened to Victor afterward. Always able to write well (like his creator, he “could put a word beside another word and make them surprising”), he abandoned university when his rock criticism began to be published by a Dublin magazine. Another break came just before the 1983 referendum on enshrining the rights of the unborn child in the Irish constitution, when he interviewed a female politician who admitted she’d had an abortion herself and “never regretted it.” In those Catholic-dominated days, the rights were enshrined anyway, but once the interview was published, Victor took on the role of professional controversialist, appearing on radio and television to denounce “everything that’s wrong about this country.”
And it was after one radio appearance that he met Rachel Carey, then just starting out in her upscale catering business, but set to become a much-loved national figure, with a TV show not unlike The Apprentice. As dream girls go, Rachel is hard to beat. Not only is she “the most beautiful woman” Victor “had ever seen”—so glamorous, in fact, that she “walked like a Protestant”—but she also swears, drinks pints of Guinness, introduces him to such middle-class exotica as couscous, and is both kindly and overwhelmingly sexy enough to cure his chronic impotence.
For a while, the two are a celebrity couple, photographed by glossy magazines in their Dublin loft apartment. The trouble is that as Rachel’s career grows ever more stratospheric, Victor’s stalls. His planned book, Ireland: A Horror Story, goes unwritten—partly because (perhaps like his creator, until now), “I knew the dominance of the Catholic Church was a bad thing but I didn’t know how to expand on that, or even start.”
All the time this is going on, Victor remains haunted by one school memory in particular: when his father was dying, the head brother, claiming to be concerned that fourteen-year-old Victor would need to protect the family, gave him a wrestling lesson. After he’d pushed the boy down on to the floor, the brother briefly held Victor’s penis. Suffering from recurring nightmares about the incident, he tells Rachel what happened. Stuck one day for something freshly controversial to say, he also relates the story on a radio show, provoking Family-like uproar and accusations of “undermining the Church”—even though he’d emphasized that it only happened once and that other parts of his school life were happy. “I didn’t exactly bury the story,” he says later, “but I made it, somehow, an expected part of every Irishman’s education.”
Why Victor and Rachel split up is never spelled out. But the fact that he used to have sex with her naturally impresses the other middle-aged male drinkers in Donnelly’s. Before long, Victor is delighted to be exchanging the good-natured if occasionally brutal-sounding banter known—and much-prized—in Doyle’s work as “slagging.”2 Happily, too, the more socially awkward Fitzpatrick fades into the background.
But then comes a startling twist. One night, Victor returns to his apartment to find Fitzpatrick waiting for him. At first, Fitzpatrick merely hits him in the face. Much more disturbingly, though, he explains how he knows so much about Victor with the stark words “I am you.” “What do you mean?” Victor understandably asks—speaking, I suspect, for many of the book’s readers. “Literally what I said,” replies Fitzpatrick. “No escape, Victor. I am you.”
Fortunately, he does go on to elaborate a little:
You often think about what your life would’ve been like if it had been a bit different. I’m right, amn’t I? A dose of the oul’ what-ifs…. What if you hadn’t gone to college. What if you hadn’t done the record reviews. What if you hadn’t met Rachel. What if I’d written that book. What if I’d stayed closer to home.
Well, now he knows: Fitzpatrick is “what the alternative Victor would have been like.” “I am what you became,” he adds. “I’m all your regret.”
And his revelations don’t end there. Fitzpatrick forces Victor to remember that “we” weren’t assaulted once by the head brother, but repeatedly raped for a month. He also gets him to admit that he never had a relationship with the Irish celebrity Rachel Carey. They did meet and get on well at a radio studio, but Victor’s impotence meant he was too frightened to show up for their first date.
Presumably realizing this ending will throw many readers, the proof version of Smile comes with a publisher’s note suggesting that some might be compelled into an immediate reread. Yet, in my experience, even after two rereads, things fail to fall into place. You do notice how cunningly Doyle planted clues that everything was not as it seemed. But what doesn’t become clear is what “really” happened. Because of the undiminished power of Doyle’s social realism, this doesn’t feel like a naive or excessively literal-minded question, but one we’re supposed to be able to answer. After all, that publisher’s note states firmly that Doyle is not “playing any tricks.”
Victor isn’t the first Doyle character to imagine a more congenial past. In The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Paula often pretended that both her early marriage and her childhood had been happy. In the sequel, Paula Spencer (2006), she also had a persuasive theory as to why: “Maybe it’s the way the brain works to protect itself. It invents a new woman who can look back and wonder, instead of look back and howl.” But in that case—unlike in Smile—the truth was still plain.
The problem, I think, is that “I am you,” “[I am] what the alternative Victor would have been like,” “I am what you became,” and “I’m all your regret” are different things. As a result, while it does seem obvious—and is meant to seem obvious—that the relationship with Rachel didn’t take place and the raping did, the other elements of Victor’s life are far more difficult to work out. (In short, which of the oul’ what-ifs apply?) Or if he’d been Fitzpatrick all along, does this mean that what Victor became was—as Fitzpatrick declared himself to be in the pub—a local builder who turned into a millionaire in Ireland’s now-vanished boom years? (In short, do either, neither, or both of them exist?)
Smile proves again that there aren’t many writers better than Doyle at conjuring up school days or pub nights. During Victor and Rachel’s time together, class differences in Dublin are skewered with gleeful precision—although seeing as they didn’t actually spend any time together, you might wonder how Victor/Fitzpatrick knows so much about them. In its most straightforward sections, the novel is another of Doyle’s rich and sympathetic character studies. Even so, the final pages—for all their undeniable emotional punch—feel like the literary-novel equivalent of one of those whodunit denouements after which our gasp of “Wow!” is followed a few minutes later by an equally heartfelt, and rather more persistent, “But hold on a minute….”
In The Dead Republic, one of Doyle’s main objections to republican myths is that they have the nature of a religious faith—which is why they’re so indestructible. In 2012, having once suggested, to general outrage, that “Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” he explained that “it’s the religion that annoys me, the Apostolic Church of James Joyce the Redeemer, and the priests who guard the church’s holy texts.” ↩
As one sentence in Bullfighting puts it, “Oh, fuck off, she said, affectionately—that was possible in Dublin.” ↩