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.