REVIEW: Roddy Doyle's New Novel Combines Two of His Interests: Music and Abuse

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Smile by Roddy Doyle

Viking, 214 pages

By Robert Allen Papinchak

Roddy Doyle loves music. That’s apparent from most of his novels, beginning with The Commitments, the first in his Barrytown trilogy. And it’s there again in The Last Roundup series starting with A Star Called Henry. Doyle has also repeatedly explored how the traumatic abuse can alter a child’s life forever in novels like the Booker Award-winning Paddy Clarke HA HA HA and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.  It should come as no surprise, then, that he has conjoined these two subjects in his latest novel, Smile.

Victor Forde is 54 years old when he walks into his local pub for “one slow pint.” What he encounters confounds him and jolts his memory back to his schoolyard days. Edward Fitzpatrick, a man of Victor’s age wearing shorts and a pink shirt accosts him, claiming to know him from the past. When Fitzpatrick says memory is “like dropping bits of yourself as you go along,” Victor says he has a “good memory” but doesn’t know “who [Fitzpatrick] was.” Even when Fitzpatrick mentions a sister who had a crush on Victor and loved David Bowie songs, Victor cannot remember knowing anything about their relationship.

As the novel moves along things begin to seem increasingly surreal. Something is awry. Why does Fitzpatrick recall events that Victor doesn’t?  Is Victor the quintessential unreliable narrator?  Or is he just a liar?  As he is from the get-go when he tells the barman that he has placed a “fiver” on a “two-horse race,” then says he didn’t.  Doyle seems to be dropping clues like breadcrumbs for the reader to follow.

Victor reconstructs a personal history that includes a now-absent, perhaps divorced wife, Rachel Carey, a chef who was once “famous for being successful.” Whenever “there’s been a newspaper feature on successful Irishwomen, [his] wife’s name [is] one of the first to be trotted out.” Together they “might have been Ireland’s first celebrity couple.”

Victor’s fame and notoriety came from being outspoken as a rock music critic, particularly 13 words that destroyed a career: “’See review of Remain in Light, above, and place “not” before every verb.’” He morphs into a political journalist and controversial talk-show guest who supports abortion and contraception. Later, he becomes “famous for a book [he] was writing but didn’t write.” It was supposed to be a book about “what’s wrong with Ireland.”

What’s wrong with Ireland includes a series of events that are at the core of Smile and that seem to tie Victor and Fitzpatrick inextricably together. Fitzpatrick reminds Victor that one of the brothers at the Christian Brothers School was attracted to him. Victor was 13 when his French teacher said, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.” It is a line that surfaces like a musical refrain throughout the novel.

Another Brother, under the guise of giving him a “lesson in wrestling moves,” accosted Victor when he was 14. Years later, during three minutes of a radio interview ostensibly about a “dancer who’d defected from the Soviet Union,” Victor reveals a more specific sexual molestation. Victor claims, “It happened to everyone. Like an initiation.” He also says he “never forgot it had happened . . . never quite lost the crawling feel across [his] skin.”

By the time the novel ends the reader’s memory is tested. What is real or not real?  What happened or didn’t happen?  Did Victor marry Rachel?  Did they have a child?  Did he ever know Fitzpatrick at school? Is Fitzpatrick an imaginary doppelganger? Are these dueling memories? Or is all of Smile about reconstructing a repressed, false memory?  Is it about that haunting memory that traumatizes Victor for the rest of his life? Is Smile completely about the residual consequences of sexual abuse?

The last chapter is a literary earthquake. There is a seismic shift in the narrative. The reader has to reassess everything that has gone before. There are tremors throughout. The bartender at the pub mistakes Fitzpatrick (“the dude you’re always with”) for Victor’s brother. Victor’s memory may have been “some sort of Brecht play. “ Fitzpatrick was always “lurking somewhere . . .He’d know facts and lies . . . [and] disappeared for spells.” The life Victor reconstructs results in a tsunami of emotions.

Music pervades much of the novel. It’s there from the first chapter with the Bowie reference. A few chapters later Bob Dylan surfaces. Along with Jim Morrison. An entire chapter is given over to the rehearsal of a Sean O’Rida mass for the future death of a cleric. Samuel Barber and Franz Liszt enter at significant moments. And, above it all, from the title onward there is the echo of the Charlie Chaplin classic, “Smile” (there is that word again). Victor’s heart is aching throughout the novel. By the end of Smile, the reader’s may be breaking, over its final, devastating conclusion.  

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.