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A Class Act

By Roddy Doyle

Long before Roddy Doyle's The Commitments became a movie about a better and duller band than the novel's Commitments ever were, I downed the whole thing on a flight to L.A. with my three-year-old squirming in the next seat. It was that quick and that compelling. Canon-keepers stodgy and hip may pigeonhole it as local color, but that's snobbish piffle--it's as major as a short novel can be. The closest precedent is Alan Sillitoe's jaunty report from the working-class '50s, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but Sillitoe isn't as funny or fast. And there's a bigger difference--except for "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," he never matched it. Doyle, on the other hand, has just published his fifth terrific book about the Dublin working class. And while The Woman Who Walked Into Doors may seem more programmatic than The Snapper or The Van or Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it hits harder than any Doyle since The Commitments--and has at least as much juice and backbone as any competing report from the middle-class present.

The fiction of contemporary life is generally populated either by troubled professionals and their doubly troubled children or by bohemians, wanderers, wastrels, sociopaths, and other supposedly paradigmatic outsiders. Doyle's novels are about ordinary yobs who spend their lives in one place and watch too much television. Most of his adults have jobs or houses to take care of or wish they did. Incomewise, they're 20th to 40th percentile--virtually middle-class at their peak, but more likely to slip than climb, although the young may rise via education and bohemia (or get wasted by misery and drugs). The welcome surprise is that Doyle doesn't believe his characters are what is called culturally impoverished. His genius is to construct a vernacular that does justice to the humor, empathy, resilience, savor, curiosity, and moral discrimination of their unexpectedly rich lives.

Not that Doyle has chosen to sustain the inspired optimism of The Commitments and The Snapper. The Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is at once a minutely rendered childhood memoir and the sad tale of how one bright lad withdraws as his parents rip apart. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors attacks a still grimmer theme--even, perhaps, a Social Problem. Audaciously, Doyle assumes the voice of 39-year-old Paula Spencer--charwoman, single mother, alcoholic, battered wife. Never long on plot or structure (both Paddy Clarke and The Van, 300-pagers where the others are 200, slow down in the middle), he jumbles her story the way she might, beginning a year after a climax in which she routs her husband with the oversized frying pan her mother-in-law gave her, and continuing a year past that. Three brutal chapters toward the end, 40 pages that stick with you like the taste of bad meat, contain nothing but abuse, 17 years of it, sometimes in sentences and paragraphs that seem to repeat of their own accord, beyond the control of narrator or author.

Typically for Doyle, however, half the book describes Paula's happier (and funnier) life before Charlo started hitting her. Unlike the earlier novels' Jimmy Rabbitte Sr, who knows exactly what he likes in a cup of tea or a scene from Cocktail, Paula's command of detail isn't always acute, but she homes in on the interpersonal, and the rules she devises to keep her alcohol addiction off the backs of her three remaining kids (the fourth's a heroin addict out in the world) are intricate and effective. Poverty grinds harder here than in Jimmy Rabbitte's tract-house Barrytown--Paula can't believe her luck when she finds a Danielle Steele in the trash she's emptying. Yet she's undefeated, and while it may take more than a frying pan to scare off most batterers, there's nothing pat about the resolve she achieves after she gets rid of Charlo--or about the love that still complicates her loathing. Roddy Doyle has the decency to understand that the most constrained human life is never simple, and the grace and guts to prove how unimpoverished the countless meanings of that truth can be.

Spin, 1996