December 30, 2007
After Saul Bellow, whom I always find a struggle, I fancied something easy to read in that dead time between Christmas and New Year. I enjoyed Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer some months ago, and I’m due to read A Star Called Henry for a book group next year, so thought I might go back in time to his Barrytown trilogy, and read the second book, The Snapper (1990).
In this, Doyle is still to some extent in embryonic form as a writer: there is less depth to the story than in the Paula Spencer books, but his ability to conjure a character almost exclusively from dialogue is fully present. No characters are described by appearance: it’s all in the voice. And even though the only character whose mind we get to see into at any length is Sharon Rabbitte, who announces her pregnancy at the start of the book (“- You’re wha’?, said Jimmy Rabbitte Sr.”), others such as Sharon’s father and the father of her child appear in full colour.
Doyle’s subject, as with the other Barrytown trilogy titles, The Commitments and The Van, is the working class Rabbitte family. Most of the plot development takes place through fast paced dialogue, both funny and sensitive, such as this exchange where the Rabbitte parents, Jimmy Sr and Veronica, casually resume marital relations:
He was restless now and it wasn’t even half seven yet. He said it before he knew he was going to.
– I suppose a ride’s ou’ of the question.
– Hang on till I get this line done, said Veronica.
– Are yeh serious?
– I suppose so.
– Fuckin’ great, said Jimmy Sr. — It’s not even dark yet. You’re not messin’ now?
– No. Just let me finish this.
Jimmy Sr stood up.
– I’ll brush me teeth, he said.
– That’ll be nice, said Veronica.
All this works best, of course, when you read it in a Dublin accent, though for some odd reason I had to struggle to stop my internal voice from slipping into Liverpudlian.
Doyle never patronises his characters, but he doesn’t romanticise their lives either. There is a good deal of solid banter with Jimmy Sr and his mates Bimbo, Paddy and Bertie down the pub, and these secondary characters occasionally come to life too, even when just the Del Boy-style vehicle for a joke about a glut of calculators. Oddly, The Snapper made me laugh less than either his prior novel The Commitments, or his later books.
When Sharon discloses her pregnancy, there’s little conflict within the family (“Sure, that’s wha’ we were put down here for. To have snappers”), and the main engine of the plot is her relationship, or lack of it, with the father of her child. It is an all-encompassing performance: we are permitted to feel empathy even for the seedy middle-aged lothario who keeps Sharon’s panties in his pocket. Doyle expands into some impressively grim description when Sharon’s memories go back to the night in question, and her interior monologues in retrospect seem like stretching exercises for his later work. As with the book overall, they’re good, but you know he’s got more in him.
July 22, 2007
Ten years ago I read Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and immediately thought it was his best novel to date. It described the life of Paula Spencer, a Dublin woman married to brutal thug Charlo. They had been the subject of his little-seen TV series Family, but Paula gained new depth on the page. Now Doyle has revisited her life, ten years on, in Paula Spencer.
The book describes a year of Paula’s long journey away from being “a woman stopping madness by meeting it halfway.” She is an alcoholic (off the sauce for four months now), working cash in hand and living hand to mouth, with four kids presenting various problems and occasional joys. Eldest daughter Nicola is prosperous and attentive (“Their fridge … a present from Nicola. It takes up half the kitchen. It’s one of those big silver, two-door jobs. She opens it the way film stars open the curtains. Daylight! Ta-dah! Empty. What was Nicola thinking of? The stupid bitch. How to make a poor woman feel poorer. Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser. The stupid bitch. What was she thinking?”). Son John Paul is a recovering heroin addict, living across town and married to Star, with whom Paula doesn’t get on. Younger son Jack is still at home, and is the one in whom Paula places most hope. Also at home is Leanne: Paula fears that she is following in her alcoholic footsteps:
There are so many Leannes. She sees and feels hundreds of her, every day – it’s no exaggeration. The little girl clutching Paula’s leg. The teenager painting nail varnish onto bleeding skin. The baby crying while her mammy tries to crawl under the cot. The wreck on the couch. The young woman hobbling to work. The little girl who never sits still, who makes everyone laugh. The little girl who wets the bed. The teenager who wets the bed. The woman who wets the bed. They’re all there, every day. The young woman she’ll see tomorrow morning. The skinny monster she might see tomorrow morning. The girl who hugs her. The woman who hit her.
All her children are recovering from Paula’s alcoholism, just as she is, and Doyle brings out brilliantly their differing responses: the over-watchful, the unforgiving, the jointly damaged. And he does this in remarkably spare language, which at first seems unnaturally staccato and repetitive, but soon takes on a laconic poetry. The work the reader must do for all the adjectives and purple prose Doyle leaves out, gives an added richness to Paula’s relationships with her children and her siblings. Some simple passages, such as the one where Paula intensively makes all the beds in the house largely to keep herself busy and distract her mind from wanting another drink, are powerfully affecting.
There is also, amid the unsentimental portrayal, some of the humour Doyle displayed in the Barrytown trilogy:
Where would she wear a good coat? She doesn’t go out anywhere. She doesn’t go to Mass. She doesn’t go to the pictures. She’s never been in a theatre. Work and the shops – that’s it. Her sisters have given up on her. Her last text from Carmel was ages ago and it wasn’t a party invitation. She was offering Paula a chicken. Spare chkn. Wnt? Paula didn’t answer.
Shve it up yr arse.
The book also reflects the changes in Ireland in the last ten or fifteen years, the growth in wealth, political development and influx of foreign workers into a formerly monoethnic society. But it is as a character-driven story, which makes you hope the best for its main players (urging Paula not to give in and have another drink each time she is tempted), where it excels.