Roddy Doyle first thought his new book might be called "Charlo," after the abusive man at its center. No, the book really belonged to his victim and wife. Try "Paula."
"But that's a pretty crummy title," the Irish writer acknowledges now. So he began thinking about the litany of excuses urged on abused women. You fell down the stairs. You tripped over the curb. You walked into a door.
There it was.
Paula Spencer, a 39-year-old alcoholic trying to sort out the memories of her abusive marriage, became "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" (Viking, $22.95). It is a title some readers will understand instantly, while others are as clueless as the doctors and nurses who tend to Paula's wounds.
"Ask me," she pleads desperately in her mind, every time another beating has landed her in the hospital. But no one asks, because no one really wants to know.
As in "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," which won the Booker Prize in 1993, the story tumbles out in the title character's words, with a fast and furious naturalism that reads as if someone set up a tape recorder in an Irish pub and finally did ask Paula: What did he do to you? And why did you stay?
"No real answers come back, no big Aha. He loved me and he beat me. I loved him and I took it," Paula says toward the end. "It's as simple as that, and as stupid and as complicated. It's like knowing someone is dead, but not having the body to prove it. He loved me. I know it."
Most critics have hailed the book as Doyle's finest yet. Novelist Mary Gordon wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "I've never been terribly interested in the question of whether a man can satisfactorily write about a woman's experience; a good writer can, a bad writer can't. Roddy Doyle is a very, very good writer."
Doyle first wrote about Paula and Charlo in a four-part Irish television series, "Family," that aired in 1994. Ireland was feeling very warm and fuzzy about Doyle just then. His first three books -- "The Commitments," "The Snapper" and "The Van" -- had been made into successful films and were regarded as affectionate portraits of the Irish working class. And Doyle had just won the Booker, the first Irish writer to win the prestigious literary prize.
"Then 'Family' was broadcast, and it's a stark and grim story about a violent man, so a lot of people were shocked," Doyle says in an interview before a recent reading at Bibelot.
"Some people from the Catholic right objected. They seemed to be under the impression that I was undermining Irish marriage by suggesting not all marriages are happy. And people from the left, because they seemed to think that because it was a lower-class setting that I was suggesting all lower-class people are like that. It was very interesting to say the least."
Interesting, but not painful. Mad Ireland has not hurt Doyle into his poetry. Nor does he feel burdened by the country's literary traditions in general, or James Joyce in particular.
"I find the comparisons to Joyce were a bit lazy, I don't see it," he says. "He was never on my shoulder when I was writing. I never regard myself as an Irish writer per se, I'm a writer who happens to be Irish. I don't feel self-consciously Irish, except when I come to a place like this."
And until Doyle speaks, he blends effortlessly into the crowd of browsers at Bibelot on this cool spring night. His hair cut quite close to his head, he wears a red-checkered shirt, gray vest, jeans and stout brown shoes. His glasses are tortoise-shell wire rims; he has a gold stud in his right ear.
But as "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," reminds readers, Ireland has long been overrun by the United States' cultural exports: the Monkees (Paula fancies Mickey Dolenz), reruns of "High Chaparral," McDonald's and, as always in a Roddy Doyle book, music.
And what music. While Ireland supplies Van Morrison, and England is represented by the Rolling Stones, the American music includes "Then He Kissed Me," "Knock Three Times," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife." The first time Paula and Charlo dance, it's to Frankie Valli's "My Eyes Adored You."
Doyle reads this section to a standing-room-only audience at Bibelot, his voice giving the words not only the proper accent, but the breathless momentum of Paula's speech.
"His arms went through my arms just as Frankie went My; his fingers were knitted and on my back by the time Frankie got to Eyes. He'd been drinking. I could smell it but it didn't matter. He wasn't drunk. His arms rested on my hips and he brought me round and round.
" -- But I never laid a hand on you --
"My eyes adored you --
"I put my head on his shoulder. He had me."