Irish author Roddy Doyle is often heralded for his snappy dialogue and humor, but his literary greatness comes from routinely providing readers with a heartbreaking kick in the gut alongside. This rough juxtaposition grounds his working-class Dublin stories in the hardscrabble world he knows so well: days full of work and disappointment, as well as the humor and love needed to see them through. Despite it all, Doyle seems to say, there’s still a bit of hope.
Not so in Doyle’s latest novel, “Smile,” which has a whiplash ending so tragic and unexpected reading it feels like being knocked to the ground by your own mother: a startling and tragic turn that changes the way you see everything that came before.
I’ll explain, with no spoilers: Victor Forde, 54 years old, newly single, moves into an apartment in his old neighborhood and heads out one evening for a pint. At the pub he runs into a foul-mouthed man named Fitzpatrick, who swears they were schoolmates, though Victor can’t place him. As the evening rolls on, Fitzpatrick starts reminiscing about events Victor would rather forget: abuse suffered at the hands of one of their teachers. “ — It was the one who taught French that wanted your arse. Am I right?”
Doyle cuts in then with his classic black humor: “ — Fxxxin’ gas, he said. — And look at us now. Would he fancy us now, Victor?”
The story moves between Victor’s present-day life at the pub and memories of his beautiful, celebrity chef wife; his childhood at The Christian Brothers school; and his desperate, ill-fated attempts at becoming a writer. Most of the short novel is made up of recollections, but time and again Doyle returns to the idea of memory being faulty, unreliable. “The memory. It’s like dropping bits of yourself as you go along, isn’t it?”
Some memories are lost to age, but others fade from force, from suppression. And when they come rearing back, unguarded, in the middle of the night, well — there’s not much to smile about then.
While not the cheeriest of reads, Smile is a game-changing novel from one of the greats.