Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (1993) was one of the few Booker prize winners that I had heard of before this project, so when I told my neighborhood book club about the project, and they graciously offered to read a book with me, this is one that I suggested.
We begin the book in medias res: “We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick.” Readers slowly glean that the narrator is a young boy, living somewhere in Ireland, who runs wild with a group of like-minded boys, shoplifting and playing variations on soccer, but always doing their homework. They also commit some atrocious acts of violence and cruelty, like making the narrator’s little brother take a capsule of lighter fuel in his mouth, and then lighting it. Fortunately, Paddy does become more aware and compassionate as the book progresses.
Because narrator Paddy is a child, we don’t really know where he lives, but we know all about the boys’ turf wars, which are exacerbated by the building of a whole new suburb around them. The boys play on construction sites as the formerly open spaces shrink. One of the most interesting aspects of the boys’ play for me was their nascent curiosity about language. They have two rituals involving language, one in which they chant new and unfamiliar words, like “trellis” and “substandard.” In the other, one boy hits the others on the back with a poker, and the curse word that the smitten boy blurts out becomes his name for the week.
But back at home, the unspoken conflict driving the book is the deteriorating relationship between Paddy’s parents. His father oscillates between normal dad and uncaring martinet, while mom tries to protect the four children. Paddy’s anxiety has become so fine-tuned to his parents’ moods that he thinks he can control them, by making a joke, or by staying awake all night. The discord at home leads Paddy to become dissatisfied with the balance of power in his play group. He discovers a desire to become closer to his brother – too late. Paddy then wants to run away, to be emotionally disconnected. But of course, the family structure is out of his control, and it changes before he can act.
One of the book club members said that this novel “threw her off balance,” and I agree. That’s the genius of this book: Doyle is the consummate master of the oft-cited advice “show, don’t tell.” It’s a tour de force, to write an entire novel in the pure voice of a child, without the adult voice and the “I later realized…” bleeding through. Doyle tells us nothing, but shows us everything, through the mixed-up thoughts of an anxious little boy.