We've got a couple of months to go, but it's safe to say that Roddy Doyle's "Smile" is the most bitterly ironic title of 2017.
Ha, ha, ha, indeed.
His new novel offers a deceptively languid plot laced with menace. Paced more like a short story than a novel, "Smile" creates contradictory feelings of poignant stagnation and accelerating descent.
The narrator, 54-year-old Victor Forde, speaks with a kind of plaintive congeniality that immediately scratches your sympathies. "I stayed up at the bar a few times," he begins, "but I didn't want the barman thinking that I needed someone to talk to."
Oh, Victor. You so need someone to talk to.
But at the moment, we readers appear to be Victor's only friends. His marriage to a beloved TV personality has collapsed. He has no contact with his son. He's living alone, unemployed, forcing himself to go out each night and run through the motions of having a favorite local pub.
"I can't have looked that bad — that lonely, or sad. Or neglected," he says, which only confirms that he looks exactly that bad — that lonely, and sad. And neglected.
This is a performance few writers could carry off: a novel constructed entirely from bar stool chatter and scraps of memory. But you can't turn away. It's like watching a building collapse in slow motion.
Victor just wants a collection of guys he can drink with and swap cracks about football — anything to avoid being asked, "What are you up to these days?" But the only man who takes an interest in him is an offish fellow named Fitzgerald. They were schoolmates some 40 years ago, though Victor can't remember him, and he definitely doesn't like him. Still, the encounter sets him off on a cycle of reminiscence that draws the novel into Victor's past.
Doyle has perfected a narrative technique that's elliptical without feeling coy. Victor's stories arrive between beers, in the natural tide of pub talk. His memories of falling in love, of discovering sex, bounce off the page with that ebullient joy that Doyle can somehow create in the fog of despair. We learn just enough about Victor's early success as a music critic to grasp what he lost, what glittery promise he never fulfilled. For a time, he enjoyed a reputation for glib provocation — radio shows depended on him to fill out the hour — but the big Irish novel that he was long-rumored to be working on never appeared. Victor and his infinitely patient wife maintained the fantasy of his productivity until there was nothing left but cobwebs of disappointment and shame. Now, he laughs off those years of writer's block with a joke about "The Shining," but it's an empty gesture, a comic reflex with no mirth.
The cause of his failure, his long exhalation of potential, becomes the undertow of Victor's confession, provoked for reasons he doesn't entirely understand by Fitzgerald's persistent questions about their school days.
Doyle draws adolescence with such crisp empathy and humor that Victor's memories feel as real as photos of your own childhood. His Catholic schooling under the brothers is charged with excitement and the possibility of violence. "I was often terrified and I laughed so much I went blind," he says. There's the threat of being struck by one of the teachers or mocked by a fellow student for some imperceptible difference. "The wrong word, the wrong shirt, the wrong band," he notes, "could destroy you." When a French teacher says, "Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile," Victor knows immediately, "I was doomed."
In a recent interview in Dublin, Doyle revealed that he drew this incident from real life. "It was a dreadful experience," he said, "this strange man at the front of the classroom flirting — I suppose — with me. It left me wondering what was wrong with my smile."
The horror remains, but decades of tough journalism and brave memoirs have drained much of the surprise from tales of child molestation. No one picks up a new novel involving Catholic education without bracing for the inevitable arrival of some reptilian pedophile. That expectation is even stronger in Doyle's native country. "The story of institutional abuse has become almost expected in Ireland," he said.
But still Doyle was determined to write a novel that shocked.
The usual technique for inspiring that reaction is to carve deeper into a new limb of explicitness, as Gabriel Tallent does in this year's best-selling "My Absolute Darling." But Doyle pushes his novel into a strange place. The lone scene of abuse in "Smile" is chilling but brief, even mild. Years later, when Victor speaks of that experience publicly, he practically laughs it off and acknowledges that other students suffered much worse.
But as the novel reaches its crescendo, Doyle shatters the natural structure of his narrative and manages to disorient us despite our weary confidence that we know the dimensions of the molestation tale. It's a daring move, an attempt to trace the penumbra of abuse across a shattered psyche. For one horrible moment, we get a sense of the victim's unspeakable confusion, the terror that diverts a life and wrecks a mind.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Roddy Doyle
Viking. 224 pp. $25