By Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape 214 pages, $25
Roddy Doyle’s new novel, his 11th, opens with a surprise: a protagonist who appears to be flirting with, of all things, contentment. For decades, Doyle’s fiction has been a reliable source of scrabblers and strivers, fighters and victims; his characters dodge and climb, get knocked down and pick themselves up again. Life’s drama, in a Doyle novel, is intense and ongoing.
But Victor Forde, the narrator of Smile, seems to have put his battles behind him. Middle-aged, recently divorced, he’s just moved into a dilapidated Dublin apartment block by the sea, where he licks his wounds, befriends some stray cats, makes up stories about his neighbours. He’s a writer: a reporter and music journalist whose big book never quite got written. But now, who knows. Maybe he’ll finally do it.
His ex-wife, Rachel, is a beloved TV cooking-show host and feminist activist; their parting seems to have been amicable, and they sign their text messages with an X. Victor finds a pub, declares it his local, falls in with some friendly men who are charmed by his nearness to celebrity and his tall tales. He’s starting over, and it stings; but he can’t help finding reasons for optimism. “The sad nest of a new, forced bachelor” is what he calls his new home. “But it wasn’t. I knew: Every happily married man and woman wanted a place just like this.”
Into this autumnal idyll walks an ominous stranger: a man named Ed Fitzpatrick. He recognises Victor one sunny evening at the local, calls out his name, emerges from the shadows and says it must be 40 years since they were in school together. “You haven’t changed enough, Victor. It’s not fair, so it isn’t.”
Fleshy, vulgar, simultaneously bumptious and passive-aggressive, Fitzpatrick is perpetually dressed in a secondhand pink shirt and a pair of shorts — “the ones with the pockets on the sides for shotgun shells and dead rabbits” — and always sits a little too close. Victor doesn’t remember him, but the initial impression is viscerally repellent. “I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”
Nevertheless, Victor can’t stop obsessing over Fitzpatrick in the days to come, worrying that he might suddenly appear or, conversely, that he might not. He hates the man, wants to avoid him. And yet, “there was something about him — an expression, a rhythm — that I recognised and welcomed.” None of Victor’s new friends know who Fitzpatrick is: The bartender wonders aloud if he’s Victor’s brother, they seem so familiar with each other; the lads figure they’re cousins.
Victor’s efforts to place Fitzpatrick in memory may be futile, but they lead him to recall the central milieu of his boyhood: the Christian Brothers school, one of many in Ireland, where he was educated by a faculty of stern Catholic priests. At first, we get memories of the bullying inflicted by Victor’s fellow students: beatings from the older kids, homophobic slurs. It wasn’t all bad, though: “We suffered together,” Victor tells us, “and it was great.” But the looming enigma of Fitzpatrick drives Victor to darker places in memory: The priests, it seems, were disciplinarians, often abusive ones. Sometimes, we soon learn, they even touched the boys inappropriately. In fact, Victor was one of them, and in fact it was the headmaster groping him sexually under the pretense of teaching him self-defence.
Victor remembers not only this abuse, but the moment of its original excavation from memory, during the happy days with Rachel. He wakes violently from sleep beside her — “I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart” — and tells her everything. The abuse, we realise, is partially responsible for many of his life’s failures: his writer’s block, his ineptness as a husband and father. Eventually he confesses the abuse, impulsively, on the radio, earning both public sympathy and derision.
Smile sags a little bit in the middle, as Doyle chronicles Victor’s somewhat idealised relationship with Rachel. Though we know it’s destined to end, their romance is a shapely, familiar tale about a poor boy, an underdog, managing to land a beautiful, ambitious and moneyed girl; Doyle gives it a poignant, honeyed glow. And the story of sexual abuse, while harrowing, appears not to have ruined its victim; Victor has come to terms with it at last.
But has he? There are signs, even during the more sentimental sections of the book, of some deeper darkness we haven’t been shown, one that Victor hasn’t allowed himself to look directly at. He contradicts himself, doubling back and changing his story. He suddenly admits, out of nowhere, that he and Rachel were never really married; Victor just calls her his wife to avoid having to explain their unconventional union. And what about Victor’s son? We know he has one, but we never hear about him. Are they estranged? Did something happen to drive them apart? And why, specifically, did the marriage — the non-marriage — end?
More ominously, Fitzpatrick disappears for a spell, and Victor worries — both for the old tosser’s well-being and for his own safety, as though the man might jump out of the shadows and strike him down at any second. As the book nears its conclusion, this paranoia comes to seem justified: Fitzpatrick follows Victor into the supermarket, threatens and harasses him, says, “I know where you live.” An encounter at the pub shakes things up further: Fitzpatrick brings up the Christian Brothers school, makes a sexually suggestive comment about a woman Victor’s trying to date. We fear that some final confrontation is in the offing.
In Fitzpatrick, Doyle has created an extraordinarily creepy antagonist: a bully who plays dumb but always gets under the hero’s skin, a clumsy oaf who nevertheless can disappear like a cat into the darkness. Fitzpatrick’s physical presence is palpable and unsettling, uncanny even. He forces Victor into corners, breathes into his face, and stands between him and his friends; drink doesn’t seem to make him drunk. He positions himself on the barstool so that Victor has to look up the leg of his shorts.
Smile is something of a departure for Doyle — it’s the closest thing he’s written to a psychological thriller — but it nevertheless showcases his well-loved facility for character and dialogue. His ear and eye are peerless. On Rachel’s father: “Everything about him said rugby player who had not been good enough.” On a woman Victor likes: “She was different. She wasn’t Rachel. She was fattish and human. And curious.” The ordinary, seen through Victor’s eyes, has a special gleam; after a skillfully described but prosaic urban scene, we get: “What I’d just seen and heard had been great — the gulls, the cats, the girl, her knees, the shout. It had been wonderful.”
The book’s ending, though, is anything but prosaic. It is shocking and disorienting, and literally made me gasp in horror. It does serve to justify and explain some of the roteness of the middle section; nevertheless it’s likely to divide readers.
Nothing wrong with that, though — what’s the point of a book everybody agrees on? If you manage to break up a book group or two, as Smile is likely to do, you know you’re onto something.
–New York Times News Service
J. Robert Lennon’s latest novel, Broken River, was published in May.