Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

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Feb 19, 2010

So many authors get childhood wrong that when an exception comes along it seems like nothing less than a miracle. Among them: J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Irish novelist Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

Doyle's 1993 novel is narrated by (of course) Paddy Clarke, a 10-year-old boy growing up in Ireland in the 1960s. As other commmentators have observed, there really is no "authorial presence" -- that is, the voice of Roddy Doyle the novelist is subsumed by the guileless voice of Paddy Clarke the boy. The child has no filter; he recounts hysterically funny happenings and more painful events in the same neutral tone. In essence, we are listening in on his thoughts, which are by turn illuminating and illogical (sometimes both at once).

The book's humorous passages can provoke me to laugh out loud (I've read the novel more than once). But they are more than offset by the disturbing undertones; Paddy's parents seem to be headed for separation. And the boy and his peers sometimes engage in cruelties so bizarre and unrepentant that -- well, that I could not help remembering some of my own boyhood wickedness.

Doyle is better known for his "Barrytown Trilogy," a group of three novels titled The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. They're excellent works, all of them, as are some of his more recent efforts. But Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is the author's masterpiece, a stunning display of pure talent and canny mimesis. Read it and weep -- and laugh, sigh, recall, mourn.

Written by John Mark E.