Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle (Globe & Mail Review)
The Globe and Mail (Nov 2006)
Fumbling with doors
Paula Spencer By Roddy Doyle Knopf Canada, 277 pages, $32.95
It has often struck me as strange that modern Irish fiction does not have more working-class heroes. When you consider that for most of the last century, half the country was exiled digging holes, building roads, driving buses in New York and nursing in English hospitals, it’s remarkable more of them haven’t graced the pages of our fiction. Yes, yes, I know, social class and a particular job description cannot eclipse dull writing and lack of a story. The experts would argue me under the bed and over the fence for suggesting such a demand of fiction: What do you think this is, missus, the bleeding equal opportunities commission?
Appeasement and much more besides turn up in Roddy Doyle’s novel Paula Spencer. The working classes have served him well; so has his CD collection.Lest I should appear to be going easy on him for the lone act of putting an evening cleaner on the page, I will say that I have not always been an unadulterated fan of his fiction. Sometimes in his earlier “me bollix” phase of fiction (e.g. The Barrytown Trilogy), I found he relied too heavily on twisting the larynx out of the Dublin accent. My full conversion came at Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha, an unparalleled portrait and depiction of the peculiarity of being a child.
Doyle likes to keep his people close. Roddy and Paula first did a literary line together in the novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a union that had morphed from his earlier 1994 BBC television series: The Family. The first episode caused Doyle to have his lawn verbally mowed by outraged factions up and down the Irish countryside, for daring to suggest domestic violence existed, for bravely pointing out that life for some folks could be a grim affair.
Three episodes later, they understood his point, and anyone who saw the final episode, which focused entirely on Paula, has the edgy, angry, Bambi-eyed and drawn Paula forever iron-branded into their frontal lobes. Comparatively speaking, with this third-innings Paula Spencer, their literary union has outlasted the average hopeful marriage.
In this new book, Doyle is more than reunited with Paula; he’s back in her kidneys. However, the descent to the renal region is initially a sluggish and flat affair. Paula is somewhat foggy, negotiating the Ireland of new money, of espresso bars, of folks owning apartments in Bulgaria, of brutal traffic jams, Hong Kong-style house prices and the jerky swing to multiculturalism. Ireland is no longer the homogeneous sausage it was during The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, when Paula’s violent husband Charlo was beating her blue and she had nightly date with a bottle of gin.
In The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle essentially outdid himself, placing such an unlikely presence, rendered so strongly and persuasively on that page, that one opens Paula Spencer with a slight apprehension, an apprehension that keeps you wondering for at least the first 70 pages. He’s shifted Paula to the third person, there’s a lot of she looks, she listens, she does, she doesn’t, she lifts, she moves, she sits, she swallows and you wonder where’s our Paula gone? Foul-mouthed, funny, flying Paula. The Paula who spoke to us embedded in the onslaught of domestic violence. The Paula who made my hands physically shake as I read her words. Come back, Paula, climb out of this measured, oak wardrobe.
Finally she does emerge and you literally want to start cheering because there she is, foibles an’ all. Our Paula. How’s it going there Paula? We’ve missed ya, what? Then you realize why Doyle did it. The slow start. Paula’s now a 48-year-old widow who works as an evening cleaner and is coming off the drink (four months and five days with no drop taken). Life’s interminably slow when you’re off the booze and every minute you don’t drink has 60 long seconds. Having served time as an evening cleaner, I can say the sight of a bucket doesn’t rev the pace of life up either.
Doyle’s faithful to Paula’s truth and just as you weren’t going to find chamomile tea flowing through her kidneys in the last book, he’s not going to dress his prose up with Jimi Hendrix solo-style sentences to make you feel better about her life in this one. You won’t find descriptions of the slant of sunlight that sound good, but have no purpose. He heeds only what she would, and if it’s on the page, he’s done the two shaves a day to make sure it needs to be. Literary trickery need not apply. He’s got voice. More writers should consider a subscription to it.
Paula Spencer is worried about her grown-up kids because of how — steeped in drink and abuse herself — she treated them. Leanne’s 23, and on the drink, looking likely to continue her mother’s alcoholic legacy, John Paul (named for the late Pope) is off the heroin, she thinks, with two kids and a girlfriend called Star, whom Paula can’t stand. Nicola has more money than she does, and Jack’s her only child who won’t hate her.
We remain entangled with Paula’s sisters, Carmel and Denise, and some of the finest moments of the book are in their company, including text messages that are so funny they threaten the urinary tract. The crux of the book is Paula trying to deal with the effects of her earlier abusive relationship, and addictive life under the daily threat of alcoholism revisiting her.
Readers rarely get this chance to reconvene with a character years later and see them fumbling to figure it all out. It’s a credit to Doyle that Paula fumbles honestly, desperately and convincingly, but also rises with dignity, determination and humour in a portrait that is fully committed to showing the effect and impact of her behaviour and circumstance. She’s intensely likable, is Paula.
Aside from one quibble with the farfetched notion of John Paul the heroin addict taking up yoga, my only other criticism remains that such intrinsically humane stories should be told more often. If the flaws of a writer’s personality turn up on the page, so too do his or her strengths. Amid success and international book festivals, Roddy Doyle still notices and values the Paula Spencers of this world. He has time for the badgering, muttery auld ones, who talk about their son-in-law at the bus stop, the kind you’d love to brain when you haven’t had your morning coffee. He reminds us, yet again, that there’s plenty going on for God’s ordinary people.
Anakana Schofield regularly had a pain in her backside cleaning toilets in Dublin during the 1990s. It was a great cultivator for literary ambition.