RODDY DOYLE'S novels have always dealt with the humor and adversity in everyday lives. But with his latest book, ``Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,'' the Irish author has created his most compelling treatment of the subject.
The quirky Rabbitte family from Doyle's previous works, ``The Commitments'' (1987), ``The Snapper'' (1990), and ``The Van'' (1991), is not present in his fourth novel, which won Britain's Booker Prize in 1993. Although it still takes place in the fictional Dublin suburb of Barrytown, this coming-of-age story is told through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy.
Patrick Clarke, called Paddy by his friends, narrates his own adventures in 1968. His days consist primarily of causing trouble with his school mates - fires, thievery, grafitti - and of hating his quiet younger brother, Sinbad.
At home, Paddy observes his gentle, supportive mother who smells good and likes to read books, and his unpredictable father who teaches him Hank Williams songs and who becomes increasingly belligerent. Paddy longs to understand the man for whom he is named: ``He was like that, our da. He'd be mean now and again, really mean for no reason. He wouldn't let us watch the television and the next minute he'd be sitting on the floor beside us watching it with us....''
When not at his job, Paddy's father reads the newspaper and takes only sporadic interest in his four children. His occasional fights with his wife are recounted by Paddy, who does not yet see that they are a portent for his family's future.
Paddy and his pals are rambunctious and sometimes violent in their activities at school and around Barrytown. Their abusiveness is often unsettling but seems to arise more from adolescent curiosity than malicious intent. They are fascinated by their neighbors and the land around them, which is slowly being converted into housing.
An endless array of ``boyisms'' is provided by Paddy, who frequently shares any newly acquired bit of knowledge. In one paragraph, the reader learns from young Clarke that snails and slugs are gastropods (they have ``stomach feet''), that the real name for soccer is association football, and that Geronimo was the last of the renegade Apaches. Paddy also wanders in and out of memories, telling his ultimately somber story in a roundabout, timeless way.
As is expected in a novel by Doyle, ``Paddy Clarke'' has plenty of dialogue, much of it humorous, all of it well-executed. The conversations (set off by dashes rather than quotation marks) highlight Doyle's ability to capture the rhythms of speech - but in comparison with his first book, ``The Commitments,'' do not fill every page.
Doyle's convincing writing makes it easy to go back and reread sections of this funny and emotionally accurate tale of youth. He sheds much of the gritty language that was necessary in his previous books about the working-class in modern Dublin. But he does maintain his usual loyalty to Irish vocabulary and culture - although some references may leave readers who are unacquainted with Irish or British phrasing a bit baffled.
In ``Paddy Clarke'' Doyle also continues his focus on family life. The incompatibility of Paddy's parents becomes clearer as the story progresses and causes a complete change in the lifestyle of their eldest son. Paddy, normally a successful student, starts falling asleep in class because of his nightly vigils to listen for arguing. He learns to appreciate his brother, to be alone in the dark, and to ignore verbal jabs from his friends - even when they begin with his name and end with ``ha ha ha.'' And eventually he faces his inability to prevent his parents' disputes and their inevitable outcome.
``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.... Ma and Da had gone way past Round Fifteen; they'd been fighting for years - it made sense now - but the breaks between the rounds were getting shorter, that was the big difference. One of them would soon fall over.''
Paddy is resilient in the end, and Doyle's deft handling of childhood makes his latest book one of his best.