In the imitable voice of a child, what little boys are made of

January 30, 1994|By Colin McEnroe | Colin McEnroe,Hartford Courant

Title: "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha"

Author: Roddy Doyle

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 282 pages, $20.95 First, a tip of the completely biased hat to Irish writers. Man for man, novels for novels, plays for plays, as Flann O'Brien would say, what nationality of scriveners can match them for innovation?

Who can explain it; who can tell you why? They don't follow the rules or they don't know them or they forget them. They make up new ones.

Roddy Doyle makes up new rules, even as regards the publication of books. After a bit of floundering and foundering, Mr. Doyle wrote "The Commitments" and didn't even bother submitting it to publishers.

In an apparently unconscious imitation of his characters, Mr. Doyle scraped up a few pounds and published it himself. The result was merely a best seller and, subsequently, a hit movie. (A second novel, "The Snapper," is now also a movie that will open in Baltimore Feb. 4. If Mr. Doyle did nothing else, he would still be a big player in the recent de-sentimentalization of Ireland.)

In "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," he has attempted something relatively new under the sun. There have been many books that attempt to see the world through a child's eye, but "Paddy" belongs to a very small group of novels that make a serious attempt to replicate a child's cognition and understanding.

"Paddy" is Mr. Doyle's attempt to write in exactly the style of a child, 9 or 10 years old. It is how he assumes a little boy would explain his life for 280 pages -- out of order, jumbled, digressive.

The narrative is a welter of quirky dialogue and brief reflections. Paddy follows his mind as it flits among anecdotes and observations. He leaves one scene without warning, visits a different time and place, and comes back with no explanation or apology.

Paddy is not big on context. From clues, we can discern that his is a middle-class (possibly lower middle class: a television, but no phone) family in a suburb, probably north of Dublin in the late 1960s.

He and his mates are hellions. They shoplift; they vandalize; they assault each other; they bully other kids. They betray their

closest allies. Paddy is not always likable, but he is not without charm.

Sorting out his ambivalent behavior toward two friends, the brothers Aidan and Liam, Paddy reveals the chaotic thicket of a child's emotional world: "When the brothers were together, standing beside each other, it was easy to see them the way we saw them; little, jokes, sad, nice. They were our friends, because we hated them. It was good to have them around. I was cleaner than them, brainier than them."

So goes the narrative.

As the novel progresses, a more jagged edge forms on his occasional acts of cruelty. At first, we think it is the influence of his friend Kevin, leader of a loose-knit gang in which Paddy is a too-obliging second banana.

Gradually, we realize the problem is at home: The marriage of Paddy's parents is deteriorating hard and fast. Paddy is judge, jury, spy, analyst, priest and peacemaker of the whole affair. Nothing works.

He describes the fights of mother and father:

"It took two to tango. It didn't take three; there was no room for me. I couldn't do anything. Because I didn't know how to stop it from starting. I could pray and cry and stay up all night, and that way make sure that it ended but I couldn't stop it from starting. I didn't understand. I never would. No amount of listening and being there would give it to me. I just didn't know. I was stupid."

Some have accused Mr. Doyle of writing easy books. But "Paddy" won last year's Booker Prize, England's highest literary award.

Paddy's "stupidity" is one of the reasons for the book's acclaim. He's not stupid but, like all children, he lacks the accretion of experience and understanding that adults acquire, simply by living. It's tough for him to sort out dire from minor, real from imagined, certainty from guesswork.

Mr. Doyle's accomplishment is to visit that state of consciousness without a trace of condescension and without making the whole thing look like a gimmick. In a sense, of course, it is a gimmick, but not a dishonest one. "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" is an amazingly honest book, and every bit as unsentimental about childhood as Mr. Doyle's other work is about Ireland.

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