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With new book, author Roddy Doyle shows serious commitment


One noticeable thing about the younger Irish writers: They tend to talk about their own writing in a refreshingly unpretentious way. No high-flown critical talk; you'd think they were meticulous carpenters describing their craft.

It's that way to be sure with Roddy Doyle, bespectacled 35-year-old author of "The Commitments," "The Snapper," "The Van" and now the prize-winning "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," the tale of a child in agony about his quarreling parents. (The film version of "The Snapper" opens in Baltimore Friday.)

"I had finished 'The Van,' " he says, "and was determined to write something different, so I set myself some guidelines: I set it in the past, in the first person, and told it with the voice of a child. With every book I write, I set out to be somewhat different."

Born in Dublin in 1958, Roddy Doyle grew up in a middle-class family in a house full of books ("My parents were voracious readers"). He was educated in a rigorous Christian Brothers school, then majored in English and geography at University College, Dublin. In the early 1980s he got a job teaching in what we would call public elementary school.

"The holidays were generous," he says. "I had lots of free time, and I didn't have close friends as teachers. In the summer of 1982 I had a three-months holiday, so I gradually got into the habit of writing."

He struggled on a long satirical work, "Your Granny's a Hunger Striker," then put it aside and began a short book set among the Dublin hoi polloi. That project became "The Commitments," a bittersweet comedy set in Barrytown, a fictional north-Dublin neighborhood, about a soul band led by Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.

He finished the book but could not get it published. So in 1986 he and a college friend, John Sutton, borrowed 1,000 pounds from a bank and published 3,000 copies under a one-book imprint they called "King Farouk." A copy found its way to Heineman, a British publisher, which published it. The book was a hit, but really gained fame with Alan Parker's 1992 film version.

Stephen Frears made a film of the second Barrytown book, "The Snapper," in which Jimmy Rabbitte's sister Sharon becomes pregnant and decides to have and keep her baby, while keeping the father's identity secret. In "The Van," Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., laid off from his job, goes into business with a friend on a fish-and-chips van. It is wild and hilarious, but more than a farce. Shining

through is the brilliant portrait of a family man down on his luck, not too bright but admirable in his way.

"When I was 20 I remember reading (John Irving's) 'The World According to Garp,' " he says. "I thought it was magnificent -- that above all made me want to write. Also E. L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime.' They really sparked me off. Before I started 'The Snapper,' I read a book by Doris Lessing, 'A Proper Marriage.' Her description of pregnancy got me to thinking about pregnancy for the first time."

Mr. Doyle's novels (he has written two plays as well) have made him one of the hottest-selling writers in England and Ireland. "Paddy Clarke" won the 1993 Booker Prize, Britain's closest thing to the Pulitzer. "The Van" was a nominee for the same prize in 1991. Though Mr. Doyle is best known here for "The Commitments," "Paddy Clarke" is a giant step and should establish him as far more than an Irish comic writer.

"I think the idea for 'Paddy Clarke' came from Richard Ford's novel, 'Wildlife,' " he says. That novel is also about a disintegrating family told from a child's point of view.

"My son Rory had just been born, and I began to think about my own childhood, and the memories came flooding back."

Ten-year-old Patrick Clarke lives with his parents and little brother Francis in Barrytown in 1968. In the story, told entirely in his voice, Paddy and his buddies have adventures messing around their neighborhood: filching magazines from the local store, setting little fires, tormenting disliked adults and suffering the harassments of troglodytic teachers.

These adventures, replete with much childish dialogue, take up two-thirds of the book. Then suddenly the reader becomes aware that Patrick's parents are fighting incessantly, the father resorting to occasional slaps and shoves. Paddy begins to reveal his terror about this and has fantasies of stopping it with compulsive rocking and mantras. He imagines that if he stays awake all night, he can prevent the fighting:

"I was making sure that they didn't start again; all I had to do was stay awake. Like St Peter when Jesus was in the garden. St Peter kept falling asleep but I didn't, not even once. I made a corner in the bed, and sat up in the dark. . . . I hit my head off the wall. I pinched myself; I concentrated on how hard I could go. I went to the bathroom and threw wet on my pyjamas so I'd be cold. I stayed awake.

"The cock crew."

Patrick starts out cocky and confident, afraid of nothing in the world outside, but as his inside world falls apart, he is revealed as a child who is as delicate and defenseless as a caged canary. Mr. Doyle shows a brilliant grasp of the complex rules of childhood society, shown against the irrationality of parental behavior.

The book has funny bits, but on the whole it is strange and sad and fearsome. The title is ironic: When his father deserts the family, Paddy's schoolmates taunt him cruelly: "Paddy Clarke -- Has no da. Ha ha ha!"

"It's a part of life," Mr. Doyle says of Paddy's experience, "that growing consciousness that the ice you skate on is very thin. What is sad about Paddy is that he is forced into that adult consciousness too early."

Roddy Doyle's ideas about his future are breezy. "I have no goals, no dreams," he says. "I started another novel in the summer which I had to put aside. I have no deadline for it, never have a deadline. It might be five years before I finish it. I've done a first draft of a screenplay for 'The Van.' "

He wrote part of the screenplay for "The Commitments" and all of that for "The Snapper." He'll have complete control over the film version of "The Van." Besides writing the screenplay himself, he has formed a company to produce the film, with producer Linda Myles.

For high-flying Roddy Doyle, the process is rewarding in itself, whenever and whatever he finishes. "I love the process, the day-to-day level," he says. "Writing creates something that seems believable and authentic. The enjoyment is in not knowing how it is going to end, and then reaching the end. On a deeper level, it's trying to bring characters to life so that readers will believe in them."

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