Growing up is like a blow to the head: It makes partial amnesiacs of us all. Even the best writers seldom capture the temper and shifting textures of childhood with approximate, let alone absolute, fidelity. Instead of a living, breathing, thinking child, what’s most often presented on the page is either some magical, hypersensitive being or a spiteful monster with milk teeth. Which is why Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the 1993 winner of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, is such an astonishment. Set in a north Dublin suburb in 1968, this new novel by Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, The Snapper) perfectly captures, without any filtering nostalgia or political agenda, the potency, skewed perceptions, and just plain weirdness of being alive at the age of 10.
Doyle’s conceit-that everything in a young person’s experience is equally weighted-threatens, after a while, to become a trap. As Paddy narrates them, the simple pleasures of starting fires or bursting tar bubbles carry no more import, or insight, than the terrors of vaccination, the dreary sameness of school, or even the thrill of sudden injury. Just when your attention (though not your admiration) starts to wane, however, a family crisis rocks Paddy Clarke’s world: His father and mother’s marriage is coming apart. ”They were fighting all the time now. They said nothing but it was a fight. The way he folded his paper and snapped it, he was saying something.”
As his parents’ relationship goes to ruin, frighteningly quickly, Paddy discovers a galaxy of raw new emotions, including grief and dread. Dread especially. He interprets, then reinterprets, his mother’s every gesture, his father’s every word, seeking clues and explanations. But no matter what he does, he can’t understand. ”No amount of listening and being there would give it to me. I just didn’t know. I was stupid.”
Quarrels in the kitchen and the bedroom grow louder, more frequent, then turn violent (”He’d hit her. Across the face; smack. I’d heard it; he’d hit her”). The inevitable happens: His father vanishes, making Paddy, the oldest of the four Clarke children, suddenly the man of the house. And the butt of his playmates’ cruel doggerel humor: ”Paddy Clarke/ Paddy Clarke/Has no da./Ha ha ha!”
Without ever raising his voice, or violating Paddy’s, Roddy Doyle has created a small, resonant masterpiece. Here, for once, is childhood and childhood’s end, done heartbreakingly right. A