Roddy Doyle's Brave Work on Memory and Abuse

Smile (2017)
By Roddy Doyle
Viking, 224 pages.

We’ve all seen the stories. Try as it will, the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to bury its own recent past, especially insofar as the predatory priest scandal goes. As I type, the Boston Globe continues to probe the cover up its Spotlight team first unearthed in 2002, and a new report from Pennsylvania accuses 300 priests of inappropriate sexual contact with children. It’s all horrible stuff, but what does it mean to have been taken advantage of by someone you thought had God on speed dial? Does one ever recover from such a thing?

Roddy Doyle’s Smile seems to suggest that one can move forward once enough time passes and other events of life compete for personal memory space. His most recent novel centers on 54-year-old Victor Forde, who has been carefully rebuilding his life so he can move on from recent bumps in the road. He is newly divorced from his knockout wife Rachel, a celebrity TV cooking show host, but the two remain friendly and she continues to offer emotional support. Victor is also unemployed as his gigs as a music critic have dried up, but he’s upbeat even though he has moved into a new flat in Dublin near the seaside that’s less posh than his former digs. His is the classic sorting of the things one used to think mattered versus those that really do.

We find Victor wallowing in something approaching midlife contentment rather than crisis. He busies himself by banging out chapters of the book Rachel encourages him to finish, and has become a regular Donnelly’s Pub, where he makes new mates. He has even come to grips with an incident that happened when he was a 13-year-old at a Christian Brothers school. His French teacher, Brother Murphy, embarrassed him in class by blurting out, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.” This led to all manner of hazing from classmates, which he tried to slough off. What he never told them was that Brother Murphy, also the wrestling coach, once groped him while ostensibly showing him a hold. Years later, the adult Victor has no problem retelling this story on a radio talk program and dismisses it as a one-time thing.

The only stone along the path of Victor’s desire to get on with his life is Ed Fitzpatrick, a character he meets in his new neighborhood. He’s the physical opposite of the trim, polished, and fastidious Victor, but he introduces himself as a former classmate from Christian Brothers. Ed looks vaguely familiar, but Victor can’t place him, nor can he recall many of the old school incidents and people Fitzpatrick mentions. He’s so insistent about them that Victor often humors him and pretends to remember, but after a while, Victor is feeling creepy. Fitzpatrick seems to know a lot about Victor, but it soon becomes obvious that Ed is a loser. He’s slovenly, cadges drinks, and is always seen wearing the same shorts and pink shirt. Is he some sort of cousin? A stalker? Just a lonely guy seeking friendship? Victor is torn between feeling sorry for Fitzpatrick and wanting to avoid him.

Doyle—known for works such as The Commitments, The Van, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha—never really bought into the Celtic Tiger myth of Irish prosperity. His Ireland is a place where things are often tough but unlike the portraits that appear in, say, Frank or Malachy McCourt, Ireland isn't a place of unrelenting misery. Doyle books are generally splashed with dollops of humor. In Smile they pierce through the surfaces of caustic barroom banter. To a great extent, in fact, Victor narrates this short novel from the observational vantage points of barstools and pub booths.

Doyle’s greatest trick, though, is to draw us into Forde and Fitzpatrick so completely that we don’t expect the shocking revelations that come. These, including the very identity of the book Victor is writing, will leave you shattered. This is more than a book about what we recall; it’s also about how we remember and why. Everyone embellishes tales, but where is the line between memory and fantasy?

Rob Weir


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