‘The Van’ by Roddy Doyle

13452626Thirty or so years ago, in modern parlance, Roddy Doyle was trending. His first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, had successfully transferred to the big screen. And the third in the Barrytown Trilogy, The Van, was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. (Doyle went on to win the Booker two years later with Paddy Ha Ha Ha).

But today, the working-class Barrytown vernacular of the Rabbitte family wears thin. The ups and downs of these Dublin residents and friends have been charted throughout the trilogy – with the expectation that with such low personal and communal esteem, everything is doomed to failure. And whereas previous Barrytown narratives have focussed on the younger members, The Van looks to the older generation of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and mate Bimbo.

They’ve both been laid off from work – Jimmy Sr from the off, Bimbo about a quarter into the book.

Hearing and seeing the previous family breadwinner cope with his diminished responsibility is the strength of The Van – a man bought so low he relies on his teenage son slipping him a fiver so that he can afford to buy a round at the pub (as long as there’s only himself, Bimbo and Bertie).

Jimmy Sr spends his endless days lost – checking out the library, playing with his grandchild, walking the dog – and without any sense of purpose. It changes when Bimbo gets laid off from the bakery: Jimmy can share his new found knowledge of the area. But it’s a hollow victory. Both men soon become lost and aimless.

And then Bimbo buys the decrepit van and goes into partnership with Jimmy Sr. A fish and chip business just in time for the World Cup (as long as they can get it clean) with plans to set themselves up outside the pub or prime coastal spots. Against the odds, it’s a financial windfall for both men in spite of the low quality goods they’re serving through the hatch.

But it’s Bimbo’s wife, Maggie, who has the business acumen. Decisions are made without any reference to Jimmy: but then Bimbo bought the van, so is it a real partnership? Enclosed in cramped conditions, temperatures rise and their relationship shifts and changes.

Farcical humour abounds as Jimmy and Bimbo slip and slide through the narrative (literally – a little too much chip fat, ketchup and oil gets spilt in the confines of the van) or a gang of kids rock the vehicle ‘for the crack’. But, overall, it just ain’t funny.

Pints (in great quantities) are drunk; comments are made about friends, neighbours, passing females; food is served along with a volley of wisecracks; the achievements of the Irish football team celebrated – all in a novel that is predominantly dialogue. ‘Hilarious’, ‘wonderfully funny’, ‘faultless comic writing’ are all plaudits writ large on the cover.

Maybe in the 90s it was. But tastes [sic] change and The Van is as hard on the palate as the burgers Jimmy and Bimbo serve up. Doyle’s novel was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, but lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

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‘Paddy Ha Ha Ha’ by Roddy Doyle

screen-shot-2013-05-31-at-09-28-28The first reaction to knowing Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was the recipient of the Booker Prize is that 1993 must have been a minor year in the literary world. But closer observation reveals that not only were David Malouf (Remembering Babylon) and Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries) shortlisted, but it was also the year of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door (to name but a few).

So just how did this occasionally engaging but somewhat dreary, slow and painful lament for the death of childhood walk away with one of the most prestigious of all literary prizes?

Roddy Doyle certainly has his plaudits – his first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van (all set in working class northern Dublin and known as the Barrytown Trilogy) were hugely popular and adapted for screen (large and small). But sadly, his fourth, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha missed the ribald humour of Doyle’s earlier works.

Seen through the eyes and ears of 10 year-old Paddy Clarke, the eldest of four, the novel explores approximately one year of growing up in the changing world of the late 1960s. It is the story of family, school and friends, with the local lads running amok but firmly kept in check by parents and schoolteachers.

Spritely at first, a sense of inevitable doom pervades Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as we slip from Paddy and his mates strutting the streets to a more poignant awareness of the disintegrating relationship of his parents. But there’s little sense of change in pace or prose and it is this repetition of unemotional observation by Doyle that leaves Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha somewhat flat and disappointing.