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Roddy Doyle’s new novel, SMILE, is a horror story. No, it doesn’t feature any ghosts or supernatural surprises, and there aren’t any monsters, at least of the non-human kind. Instead, it’s a portrait of the toll of childhood sexual abuse, in this case at an Irish Catholic boys’ school in the 1970s, and of the life-altering consequences when a victim of that abuse attempts to bury his memories.

Doyle’s protagonist is Victor Forde, a 54-year-old writer who has never produced many words that amounted to much and is working on a book he will never finish. “I was on my way to becoming a successful man,” he confesses. “I never became one.” Instead, he's been one-half of what “might have been Ireland’s first celebrity couple,” largely due to his glib appearances on radio talk shows and his domestic relationship with a woman who’s well-known for a catering service called Meals on Heels that features attractive female employees, and her role on a popular reality show. In our age of unearned fame, Victor and Rachel Carey, it seems, are famous mostly for being famous.

But as the novel opens, Victor has returned to his home town after Rachel ends their long relationship. Admitting he “didn’t laugh much until I met Rachel,” the woman who “saved me and, later, she carried me,” his life now has contracted to the radius of a cramped apartment and a nearby pub.

"Doyle swiftly and brutally exposes the depth of Victor’s psychic pain, and the folly of a lifetime of attempting to bury it, in a startlingly imaginative and chilling scene."

It’s in that pub that he encounters Ed Fitzpatrick, who claims to have been a classmate at a Christian Brothers secondary school, but whom Victor only vaguely recalls was “in among the faceless” there. From their first meeting, Victor’s antipathy to the boorish Fitzpatrick is as palpable as the smell of spilled beer.

Fitzpatrick’s appearance triggers disconcerting memories from Victor’s school days, in an institution where the atmosphere was thick with sexual tension. The proclivities of the Brothers who serve as teachers and administrators are poorly concealed, especially those of Brother Murphy, the French teacher, who makes the adolescent Victor an object of derision after remarking in class one day, “I can never resist your smile,” earning the boy the nickname “the Queer.”

And so, about a dozen years after graduation, as Victor enters a studio, desperate for a fresh tidbit of conversation that will see him through another radio appearance, he decides to tell the story of a single incident of abuse. It involves an encounter with the Head Brother, who engages the 14-year-old boy in a wrestling match on the floor of his office that’s clearly inappropriate but hardly horrific, at least in Victor's telling.

But the offhanded quality of Victor’s disclosure only makes the plot twist that climaxes the novel that much more disturbing. Doyle swiftly and brutally exposes the depth of Victor’s psychic pain, and the folly of a lifetime of attempting to bury it, in a startlingly imaginative and chilling scene. With this one stroke, Doyle challenges our understanding of everything that has gone before, as we sift again through clues in the rubble that has become Victor's life.

Doyle captures the oppressive atmosphere of Victor’s school and the sometimes monotonous camaraderie of Irish pub life with equal facility. The boys are candid in their assessment of the conduct of the Brothers, men a young Victor refers to as “zombies.” But Victor is equally intimidated by the social pressure imposed by his teenage peers, the way “the wrong word, the wrong shirt, the wrong band, an irresistible smile, could destroy you.” And the stunted lives of the middle-aged men who inhabit Donnelly's pub and become Victor’s drinking companions recall some of the characters in his fine 2011 story collection, BULLFIGHTING. At this stage, their ambitions have been reduced to little more than “avoiding disappointment.”

From the Roman Catholic Church to Penn State University, the proliferating stories of child sexual abuse have become so numerous they've almost lost their capacity to shock us. Roddy Doyle thus takes a considerable risk in fictionalizing the devastating impact of that maltreatment. But as the best writers always do, he both particularizes and humanizes that scourge, allowing even the most jaded viewer to see this depraved behavior in a new, even more troubling, light.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 20, 2017

by Roddy Doyle

  • Publication Date: October 16, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0735224463
  • ISBN-13: 9780735224469