Sobriety With a Subtext: On the Wagon, Off the Dole

Paula Spencer has already been out a while in Britain, where Roddy Doyle is a bigger deal than in America, and I’ve been reading the reviews. I got interested because the first one I saw cleverly quoted a phrase from the novel and called it “sentimental shite.” This irked me. In my view, Mr. Doyle doesn’t get enough respect, although when I broached this theory at a reading once he warmly and modestly demurred. And indeed, the pan was a fluke: British reviewers recognize that Paula Spencer is something special. Now let’s hope Americans notice. Having downed every one of his eight novels (though not his memoir or his children’s books or Family, the BBC series in which the character Paula Spencer made her debut), I’d put the new one up there with The Commitments (1987), which is not only the finest music novel ever written but a monument of comic realism.

Half dialogue and capitalized song lyrics, The Commitments is far bolder formally than the movie (forget the rock group) of the same name. Not even The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991), which completed Mr. Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, approached its spareness. Nor were they as funny, though they tried. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), an impressionistic account of a boy and his battling parents, didn’t try and won a Booker Prize for its pains. Too bad, I say, that Mr. Doyle’s most respected novel is also his most conventionally literary. Whether the compulsion is internal or external, this longtime schoolteacher does sometimes strive for respectability, as in the magical realism of his two recent historical novels about the imaginary revolutionary Henry Smart. The same is even truer for the sad story Paddy Clarke has to tell. Funny novels about functional families rarely win prizes.

Then again, problem novels don’t win prizes either, and although the first Paula Spencer, The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), was lauded for tackling the vexed subject of spousal abuse, its formal graces went largely unremarked. It’s unusual for a man to write first-person narrative from a female perspective, and although Francine Prose has compared Paula to Molly Bloom, it’s also unusual for any author to risk a voice the lit cops will find inarticulate. Ms. Prose is overstating, but I’m on her side— Paula retains plenty of wit for someone who’s survived 17 years of repeated, repetitive battering, which the back-and-forth confusion of her narrative reflects and represents. In the pitiless Chapter 26, an eighth of the book at 28 pages, sentences and fragments recur like blows. “He dragged me around the house by my clothes and by my hair.” “My back.” “Ask me.”

But The Woman Who Walked into Doors isn’t all brutal blaming—Paula had reason to love her Charlo, and though her alcoholism is understandable, it’s her responsibility nevertheless. Paula Spencer resumes her story 10 years later, with Charlo long since shot dead by the police and Paula four months into her latest attempt to quit drinking. This time the voice is third person. But the language is even more spare and staccato, with everything the narrator reports seen through the title character’s eyes or passed through her mind, which is preoccupied with staying sober and connecting to the four children she’s neglected. The action is stubbornly quotidian, proceeding sporadically with no chapters and few section breaks, and the banal dialogue echoes Paula’s uneducated vocabulary; spoken or thought, casual superlatives—“great,” “lovely,” “grand”—take on the unwilled quality of bodily functions, as natural as breathing or belching. There aren’t many laughs, either—fewer than in The Woman Who Walked into Doors, actually. If The Commitments is realistic, then Paula Spencer is naturalistic, only without the fatalism. Its flat factuality feels scientific rather than poetic, and its plot refuses to crest or resolve. For the few dissenting reviewers I’ve encountered, those qualities spell bor-ing, a judgment that probably conceals a distaste for the character Mr. Doyle chooses to honor. Of course the book moves—his sense of rhythm and pace never abandon him. Finding the character compelling and her story impossible to put down, I experienced Paula Spencer as an audacious experiment in minimalism: Beckett as Vladimir, Robbe-Grillet in love with life.

In love with life? You bet. For though linguistic amenities may be few and Paula’s life a rag-and-bone shop of the heart, the outlook here is anything but grim. Paula Spencer is a recovery novel, and who wants to read one of those? But it’s a recovery novel set in a recovering economy, and that’s grand. There’s a political subtext here having to do with the boom the Irish call the Celtic Tiger, and it’s also audacious—Mr. Doyle actually seems to believe that improved access to material goods helps make people happy. Gentrification, that scourge of all that is charming and authentic? Paula loves it. Helped out by her elder daughter and no longer losing hours at her cleaning job or wasting an ungodly chunk of her euros on vodka, she gradually fills the new fridge she’s been given and explores local consumer options. One of the first epiphanies in a novel that has its realistic share comes when her daughter phones Paula just after she’s just ordered cake (“Is there alcohol in that one?”) and coffee (the cup “a beautiful blue. No saucer.”) at a new Italian café. Paula pretends she’s home and says bye. Then:

“She adds her milk and tests the coffee.

“It’s lovely.”

Some of Mr. Doyle’s reviewers worry that Paula could fall off the wagon anytime. But through her creator, she knows so much about one day at a time that I doubt it. Instead, I worry that her back could still go when a life off the books has left her without medical insurance. I worry that she’ll lose her struggle to keep her younger daughter off the booze. I worry that the Celtic Tiger will start ripping up the furniture. But I trust Roddy Doyle to figure out what Paula’s life might be like should any or all of these bad things occur. He’ll care because he’s a realist. Sentimental shite my arse.

Robert Christgau is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone; his Consumer Guide column appears bimonthly on MSN Music. Sobriety With a Subtext:  On the Wagon, Off the Dole