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Doyle Gets Serious

Amelia Stein

Humor With a Depth Charge: Irish novelist Roddy Doyle

Irish humorist Roddy Doyle delves into the harsh life of 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors'

By Allen Barra

LIKE MOST of the best living writers in the English language, Roddy Doyle is Irish. Doyle's critical reputation has lagged a bit behind some of his contemporary countrymen--Patrick McCabe and Dermot Healy, for instance--largely because of his popularity. Doyle has had the fine fortune to have two of his novels made into pretty good feature films--The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker, and The Snapper, directed by Stephen Frears (a film of another novel, The Van, is due out this fall).

Doyle gets his good reviews and the odd tribute/profile, but these pieces often evince a cautious quality, as if critics were hesitant to praise a writer who is so successful and whose work translates so easily into good movies. To be fair, the critical establishment at any time is not inclined to let any novelist with "comic" in his title sit at the grown-ups' table. But this bias is particularly unfair in Doyle's case, since every funny line he's ever written contains a tiny little depth charge that goes off shortly after impact and forces you to stop and think about what you've just laughed at.

With his 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Doyle, as the title implies, threw the whole concept of a comic novel back into the reader's face. Doyle climbed into the mind of a 10-year-old Dublin boy from the 1960s and evoked the terrors and exhilarations of a normal day.

His remarkable achievement was to alternate the poetic and realistic without once lapsing into stream-of-self-consciousness; the only way you can tell it's written by an adult is the spelling.

We see the violence in Paddy's life peripherally; Doyle tells us nothing more than what the child sees and comprehends. Near the end, Paddy struggles to make some sense of his family situation and gushes, "There must have been a reason why he hated Ma. There must have been something wrong with her, at least one thing. I couldn't see it. I wanted to. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be on both sides. He was my Da."

WHAT PADDY can't grasp, 39-year-old Paula Spencer in Doyle's new novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, brings into sharp focus. Paula could be the mother in Paddy Clarke; she could be a lot of mothers. Early in the book, a policeman comes to tell her that her husband, Charlo, the father of her children, has been killed in a robbery attempt in which he has murdered a middle-aged woman.

The ghastly killings are the culmination of a life of horror that includes beatings, unrelieved poverty and drink. ("I'm an alcoholic. I've never admitted it to anyone. No one would want to know," Paula laments.)

Doyle is through using humor as a softening agent. His vision here is unrelenting. "There were no good times," Paula says. "I can never settle into a nice memory, lie back and smile. They're all polluted, all ruined. Nothing to look back at that isn't painful or sick."

This dire assessment, however, isn't entirely true. There's her youngest child: "Jack, my baby. He is five. He's as bright as a button, and quick. He's a gentle little lad. He still has his baby's face and tummy. Whenever I feel really poor I always search for Jack and look at him; he looks well-fed and prosperous. ... He is my mascot; my statement. He's my baby." Men rarely write about children with such passion.

And there's music: "I love Van Morrison. ... That's one thing about my life; it has a great soundtrack"--at least until the '80s, when the songs ceased to have meaning. "What did I do in the '80s? I walked into doors."

"Walked into a door" is Paula's explanation for the black eyes and bloody noses she must display in public (ha ha ha that). When she goes to the hospital and sees other women, "I envied them. And sometimes I hated them. They didn't know how lucky they were with their real accidents." There's a terrible beauty to Paula's strength; it checks her every time she approaches self-pity.

So much of current American and British fiction consists of the writer's style as literary persona. Doyle uses style for an opposite effect--to illuminate his characters from the inside out. At a time when the aim of most serious fiction seems to be a kind of studied shallowness, Doyle goes deeper. My guess is that the movies aren't going to be able to follow him there, but that will not matter at all to the novelist. Roddy Doyle is getting serious about life.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
by Roddy Doyle; Viking; 226 pages; $22.95 cloth.

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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