Books: High marks for this fictional survivor’s tale

Written By: Sarah Gellner
Published: March 14, 2018 Last modified: March 14, 2018

by Roddy Doyle
Jonathan Cape £14.99

A middle-aged man goes into a Dublin bar … Sounds like a shaggy dog story, which is not a bad approach to this 11th novel by a former Booker prize winner, of whom I confess virtually no prior knowledge. Shaggy dog stories meander this way and that, strong on ghosts and atmosphere and reminiscence, weak on narrative drive, until the punchline, on the strength of which the whole exercise stands or falls. And on that basis, I have to award Smile pretty good marks.

Despite the fact that for most of the journey I was only moderately entertained. I’ve nothing against haunted, melancholy middle-aged people, being frequently one myself, but nightly congregations of them in unremarkable locals, moreover corralled into strictly gender-segregated groups (occasional exceptions for one reason only) – well let’s just say I hope I never come to this, solidly cosy as it may seem to some.

Like our unreliable narrator here, to whom membership of a close-knit group of five or six aged 50+ men at the bar he newly frequents seems a worthy aspiration, suggesting as it does solidity and warmth, qualities his own life, which peaked early and ran downhill ever after, is distinctly lacking. It wasn’t always so, we understand; once married to a brilliant woman (a great deal is made of her beauty) he had a dazzling future behind him, all the more spectacular for having emerged from the baleful dawn of an abusive Christian Brothers school.

Yet the darkness, revived by a meeting in the bar with a self-proclaimed former fellow pupil, will not let him go. This new contact can’t actually be placed amongst his former classmates, yet the man haunts him and stalks him, reminding him of that time against his will; sabotaging his manful attempts at moving on, destroying in the end, what little is left.

As a meditation and a metaphor of the legacy of childhood abuse, this is masterful; the impossibility of disentangling the confluence of innocence, guilt and collusion; how can that be done, when children are only “innocent” in religious and popular discourse up to a certain crucial age, 12, 14, 16, what you will . . .? After that cut off point, young people are “responsible” for all actions, for which read guilty as sin, and they know it. And so do their old abusers.

So all power to Roddy Doyle for one more take on an ever-contemporary tragedy. One big unfortunate consequence of abuse-survivors’ memoirs (I’m thinking of James Rhodes’ Instrumental, or Andrea Ashworth’s Once in a House on Fire) is that unintentionally they make light of that most horrendous abuse: yes, it was desperate, but hey, look, I survived it (turned it into Art) and became a star! Well, Smile is not a memoir, so Doyle was at liberty to make it up as he saw fit, including, if he chose, a happy ending. Like all good novelists, he saw fit, without mercy, to tell the truth.