Roddy Doyle is feeling his age — or, at least, his generation’s. His debut novel, 1987’s The Commitments, had a youthful, pogo-ing energy, chronicling the rise and speedy fall of a scrappy Dublin soul band. But since then his working-class heroes have increasingly taken on ballast, managing families, careers, bad marriages, lowered expectations, and, more recently, impending death. In 2014’s The Guts, the manager of the Commitments is in his late forties and facing bowel cancer. Whenever he’s asked how he is, he routinely says he’s “grand.” He isn’t.
The Guts turned out to be an expansive, funny novel about mortality. By contrast, Doyle’s new novel, Smile, is a taut and somber novel about a subject that’s usually treated lightly and satirically — the midlife crisis. It’s a story with a twist, and part of the reason the twist gets over is because we’ve been trained not to take characters like its narrator very seriously. Victor is fifty-four and returning to single life after a split from his longtime girlfriend, Rachel, a celebrity caterer and TV host. He’s had his own media career, but with little to show for it in terms of either money or fame. He made his name on ill-tempered record reviews, some reportage, and radio commentaries where he developed a knack for saying “one controversial thing.” As the story opens he’s sunk to being best known for an unfinished jeremiad about his homeland’s flaws, with the working title Ireland: A Horror Story.
In other words, we’re sure we know this guy. And Victor knows we know this guy, too, because he doesn’t want to become it, the occupant of “the sad nest of a new, forced bachelor.” He’s alert to his small apartment and impoverished shopping list (“milk — small carton”). He knows there’s an air of the pathetic to his solo trips to the local pub, where he’s buttonholed by Ed, a former schoolmate he’s not sure he remembers. As the two share schoolboy stories, Doyle captures Victor’s slow-motion recognition that he’s starting to lapse into a dotage he resents yet sees as a kind of destiny. “There was something about him — an expression, a rhythm — that I recognized and welcomed.”
How did Victor get to this point? We expect a flashback to an affair, or a revelation that Rachel was too good for him. Instead, Victor repeatedly looks back to his Catholic school days, where survival required proving one’s masculinity to your peers and suffering the various abuses of the Brothers who ran the place. Those two demands are distinct but inseparable: When Brother Murphy smirkingly tells him in class, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile,” he immediately becomes the target of homophobic taunts. “I was stuck with it, what Murphy had said; I became the Queer.” The abuse was physical as well as verbal — in a last-gasp effort to regain some media attention in middle age, he goes on the radio to reveal that he was once sexually assaulted by a Brother at the school.
In that regard, Smile is less a midlife-crisis story than a return-of-the-repressed story, and for such a short novel there are miles of geologic strata between who Victor is and what he’s trying to avoid. Victor is a master at the pat utterance — at saying enough provocative things to keep getting invited back onto the radio, at pecking away enough at his Ireland-savaging opus to convince Rachel he’s a real writer, at proclaiming his sexual prowess, at acknowledging his sexual abuse while pushing it to the side. (“Even being felt up by a Brother was just bad luck or bad timing,” he insists.) Practically from the start Doyle makes clear that this eagerness to swaddle ourselves in a protective bubble of narrative has negative consequences. What he withholds until very final pages is how devastating and delusional that bubble can be.
In exploring this, Doyle sees plenty of parallels between masculinity in adolescence and middle age. Manliness is a desperate, performative act at fourteen, where Victor has to prove himself in a cutthroat environment: “The wrong word, the wrong shirt, the wrong band, an irresistible smile, could destroy you. You had to have something useful, your size or a temper.” Doyle suggests that the competition is just as fierce forty years on: Victor is only as healthy as his ability to spar with pub mates, to flirt, to keep up appearances, to keep filling notebooks.
Smile is a remarkable feat of characterization for Doyle, who’s taken great care to make sure Victor is neither accomplished nor pathetic, a living echo of his boyishness but not a child. As ever, he delivers his characters best through dialogue, where the profane, pint-soaked bantering exposes how we try to make sense of the harshness of the world while at the same time keeping it at bay. Victor struggles to figure out how to talk to Ed, who seems sympathetic but also has a bottomless supply of taunts. (“You creative types — fuckin’ writers. You must always be working on some fuckin’ book — I’d say, are yis?”) As a plot point, the struggle to pin down Ed is a MacGuffin. But as a thematic point, it gets to the heartbreaking core of the book — what it means to be a man, and how much pretending happens in the name of calling yourself one.