I became a big fan of Irish writer Roddy Doyle reading his bittersweet Barrytown trilogy (which has now grown to five books, a “pentalogy”) starting with The Commitments in 1987 and stretching to The Guts in 2013.
No one does humorous dialogue the way Doyle does and his barroom banter is second to none. You can almost smell the spilled Guinness when reading a Roddy Doyle story.
His latest book, Smile, has lots of the tried and true traits of a Doyle novel. Much of it takes place in a pub amidst middle-aged male swagger and there are also flashbacks to awkward adolescence and growing up in working class Dublin. Pop culture references and music trivia abound. Much of it is extremely funny.
But, the dark side that is always present in Doyle’s best work is also lurking here and becomes explicit in the book’s shocking and disturbing ending.
Because of the book’s ending — which both illuminates and redraws all of the plot developments leading up to it — Smile is a hard book to describe without giving too much away.
Suffice it to say that much of the book is about middle-aged regret and loneliness. And know too that the narrator’s youth in the 1960s attending a Christian Brothers school plays its own part.
The narrator is Victor Forde, a 54-year-old former journalist and radio pundit known for his provocative views and for being married to Rachel Carey, a celebrity chef who appears on a popular TV show called Hit the Ground Running, which Victor describes as a cross between Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice.
Rachel is beautiful, sexy and successful, and Victor knows that the question that everyone secretly asks themselves is “What does she see in him?”
When the novel opens, Rachel and Victor have split up. He has just moved into a small apartment three miles from where he was raised, to try and finish the novel he has been writing for decades. The idea dawned on me part way through Smile that the novel Victor is writing is the one we are reading.
Victor begins to spend his evenings in a local pub, trying to fit in. Here he meets a boorish man named Eddie Fitzpatrick, who knows all about Victor and claims to have been at school with him. Victor is both repulsed by Eddie and drawn to him, even though he can’t remember him at all.
Eddie’s overbearing manner soon becomes rather sinister, and as a reader I started to wonder how reliable a narrator Victor actually is.
The earliest hint of trouble, and the event that gives the book its title, is Eddie’s prodding Victor to remember the time when one of the Brothers paid Victor an unusual and ill-fated compliment.
“–Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.
It was like a line from a film, in a very wrong place.
I knew I was doomed.”
That’s when young Victor’s torment from his schoolmates began. Now, Eddie just won’t let the past drop. This causes Victor to remember more about his childhood and his stalled career, re-evaluating his life.
When the end of the novel does come it makes sense of some of Victor’s musings. For me, it also explained some of the points in the narrative that I had considered to be sloppy plotting or misplaced emphasis.
Surprise endings might not appeal to every reader, but this one was so masterfully crafted that it stuck with me long after I put the book down and made me go back and re-read passages with new eyes. Smile is Doyle at his best, funny, sad and warmhearted.
Smile by Roddy Doyle, Penguin Random House