We’ve got a couple of months to go, but it’s safe to say that Roddy Doyle’s “Smile” is the most bitterly ironic title of 2017.
Ha, ha, ha, indeed.
Doyle, who won the Booker Prize in 1993 for his portrayal of young Paddy Clarke, is the Irish master of crumpled hope — and no country provides stiffer competition in that category.
His new novel offers a deceptively languid plot laced with menace. Paced more like a short story than a novel, “Smile” creates contradictory feelings of poignant stagnation and accelerating descent.
The narrator, 54-year-old Victor Forde, speaks with a kind of plaintive congeniality that immediately scratches your sympathies. “I stayed up at the bar a few times,” he begins, “but I didn’t want the barman thinking that I needed someone to talk to.”
Oh, Victor. You so need someone to talk to.
But at the moment, we readers appear to be Victor’s only friends. His marriage to a beloved TV personality has collapsed. He has no contact with his son. He’s living alone, unemployed, forcing himself to go out each night and run through the motions of having a favorite local pub.
“I can’t have looked that bad — that lonely, or sad. Or neglected,” he says, which only confirms that he looks exactly that bad — that lonely, and sad. And neglected.
This is a performance few writers could carry off: a novel constructed entirely from bar stool chatter and scraps of memory. But you can’t turn away. It’s like watching a building collapse in slow motion.
Victor just wants a collection of guys he can drink with and swap cracks about football — anything to avoid being asked, “What are you up to these days?” But the only man who takes an interest in him is an offish fellow named Fitzgerald. They were schoolmates some 40 years ago, though Victor can’t remember him, and he definitely doesn’t like him. Still, the encounter sets him off on a cycle of reminiscence that draws…