As Thomas Wolfe famously proclaimed, you can’t go home again. But that doesn’t seem to stop some of us from trying. In “Smile,” Roddy Doyle’s 11th novel, 50-something Victor Forde, freshly divorced, moves into an empty flat in his working-class hometown, leaving behind the life he shared with his celebrity chef wife: talk show appearances, A-list parties, trendy flat, pied-a-terre in Paris.
Forde goes back, but not home, exactly: no nostalgic walks past his old house, no attempts to look up old school chums. He chooses a pub to be his local — he never had one when he lived there — where he befriends a group of regulars, men about his own age who could conceivably have been his schoolmates, but weren’t, and flirts with women he could conceivably have dated in his youth, but didn’t.
He shapes, that is to say, the life he imagines he would have been living now if he had stayed home: a social circle of people he could have hung with for the past 30 years, an imagined sense of shared roots, of being at home. But it’s a fictitious sense of continuity, a fact that becomes obvious when a vaguely disturbing stranger recognizes him as a former classmate at St. Martin’s Christian Brothers school: Forde can’t quite place him and quite dislikes him — he prefers his new friends — but “he brought me so far back; that was the appeal — the lure.” And, perhaps, the terror.
Throughout his marriage, Forde, swept away from home on the tide of his brutal pop music criticism and a fortuitous political interview, staked his identity on a book “in progress,” one that he knew, and eventually his wife knew, would never be written. After meeting his old classmate, though, he scribbles frantically in his Moleskines as memories flood his consciousness, leading him to construct and reconstruct his life story as new fragments call for attention.
“Smile” drifts, as memories do, in a curious spiral motion, picking up a scene, dropping it for another, then returning to the original from a slightly different perspective. The tale it tells is mesmerizing, not the least because of Doyle’s ability to blend humor and horror to remarkable emotional effect. Forde is a likable narrator, clever and coldly analytical about his younger self. Here he remembers savaging a band for having middle-class parents: “But that wasn’t why I hated them, because of the silver spoons I put into their mouths. I didn’t hate them, I envied them. … They could do it, and I couldn’t.”
“The silver spoons I put into their mouths”: brilliant, truly.
Fans of “The Commitments” and “The Snapper” will find many of the features they love in “Smile”: Doyle’s magical way with dialogue, his uncanny ability to condense whole paragraphs of description into a single telling phrase (“He was wearing shorts, the ones with pockets on the sides for shotgun shells and dead rabbits”).
But “Smile” is a much darker novel, akin to “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” but, to my taste, much better: deeper, more psychologically astute, more gut-wrenchingly powerful. And that ending. Well, you’ll see what I mean.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
By: Roddy Doyle.
Publisher: Viking, 214 pages, $25.