The importance of a good title should never be underestimated. In the case of Smile, Roddy Doyle’s 11th novel, the reader might be willing to follow the lead character Victor through his life as he ruminates and observes, philosophically and sardonically, alone in a Dublin pub. Doyle knows the territory of working-class Ireland, the drinking and fighting life, the short-fused personalities, life in the Church, life with rugby and football and violence and drugs. He knows the territory and the fact that even though his hero here is 54, an age when he should probably have known better and established more of a life for himself, a smile might be the only thing he owns outright. What he does with it, and how long it lasts, is the trick to understanding the sucker punch devastation of Smile, especially in its shocking final pages.
Victor is alone and apparently unwanted when we first meet him. He has moved into a nearby apartment. This pub where we first meet him, Donnelly’s, will be his local place. Everything is in place for Victor, all the routines and traditions and expectations he’ll need for this part of his life as he slips into solitude. What we learn early is that Victor needs familiarity. He needs reminders of the sensations first experienced over 40 years earlier at the Christian Brothers School, even if that was the location of the abuse at the root of Smile. Victor concludes of his apartment house “…it seemed exactly like the school stairs more than forty years ago. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation.” Everything in Victor’s life is as closely confined now as it has probably ever been, a true prison of his own making.
It’s difficult to assess a brief novel like this without giving away the ending. Is it a novel of pure fantasy? Smile is about identity and the thin line between reality and a fate inherited by those who suffer in silence. It’s also about setting a mood, and Doyle is as masterful at it here as he has ever been. At the pub, scanning the patrons probably in search of who among them will become his mates, Victor meets a man who identifies himself as Eddie Fitzpatrick, who doesn’t waste time interrogating our hero: “What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you?”
Quickly, the terminology and the past trauma becomes understandable. The Brother was a teacher, and the location was the Christian Brothers school Eddie and Victor had attended years ago. Doyle understands that the heaviest impact of the sexual trauma he needs to expose here is best expressed in the shadows. “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile,” the Brother (their French teacher) says, and the first event becomes tattooed into his mind and ours. Another Brother, in the midst of teaching a wrestling move, molests Victor. “It was only once,” Victor concludes, by way of probably offering an excuse. Roddy Doyle knows this territory. He’s disclosed in press interviews for this book that the passage where the Brother comments on Victor’s smile is autobiographical. The reader will be best served not to read more autobiography into this narrative, though, because that would be missing the point. Smile is about portraying the corrupt system that allowed the abuse:
“The Brothers were always moved during the summer holidays. The ones who were too violent or the ones who put their hands on boys’ necks and left them there. The ones who stood at the classroom window and said nothing for forty minutes. They’d be gone, or some of them would…”
Doyle plays beautifully with time and realism as we go through the early chapters of Smile. What’s real? Who actually exists? In the passages about the past, we learn of Rachel, a beautiful TV presenter who brought Victor into her life shortly after they met. He was a music critic/freelance writer who fancied himself Dublin’s Lester Bangs. He latched onto U2, but then they left the country and Victor was looking for the next great Irish band. The energy here is palpable. “I was savaging kids who were getting younger than me by the month,” Doyle writes. “I’d become a bully.” It’s a common story no less potent in its familiarity. Here is the failed writer, the pontificator, a sarcastic scribbler who managed to get a few pithy music reviews published back in the days of rock magazines and newspaper columns. Here’s the first in his family to go to college and the first to drop out. Failing to secure a stable position as a music writer, let alone focusing long enough to collect his work together for a book, Victor becomes a talking head for various TV talk shows. He interviews a controversial (especially for Ireland) women’s reproductive rights activist. Then, he meets Rachel.
Again, retrospect makes it easier to re-assess who (or what) Rachel is in Smile. Certainly she is the ideal woman, the fantasy figure, the vehicle to take Victor from a childhood trauma whose scars are still visible. Would a character like Victor ever be able to handle a woman like Rachel? Take this passage, shortly after she’s introduced. They’re driving away after the interview. She’s an entrepreneur, a hostess with her own business (“Meals on Heels”) and she is single-minded in her pursuit of excellence:
“I watched her feet on the pedals; she’d taken her shoes off. I watched her hands, her long fingers. I watched her put her black hair behind her ears. I watched her ear. I watched her mouth as she spoke…”
Later, in terms that leave nothing to the imagination, Victor makes this observation: “She loved it when we were glued together.” Doyle follows an extended chapter about the first assignations between Victor and Rachel with a brief passage about the violent encounter with his wrestling teacher: “One hand was all he needed to keep me down.” The effect is jarring. Abuse is matched with consensual sex until both become interchangeable with each other. Victor and Rachel make love while Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” plays in the background. It’s 1983, and life is energetic in Ireland.
Rachel is everything for the damaged Victor, but she’s not enough. She’s his fantasy woman, in more ways than we might want to imagine. “She saved me. That was what Rachel did. She saved me and, later, she carried me… It stunned me and it made me. I’d fallen in love with an adult. I wasn’t a fraud; I was a slow starter.” Rachel becomes a TV presenter, star of a show called Hit the Ground Running, described as a mixture of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, “…an endurance test for young entrepreneurs of all ages…” Doyle describes Victor and Rachel as Ireland’s first celebrity couple, and the reader gets the sense that these golden times will never end.
Smile is a brief novel, easy on its surface, but it will take effort and concentration to fully understand. What might seem logical at first soon starts to prove enigmatic and shady. Victor mentions a sister, and a now grown son, but there’s no elaboration. Likewise, we never understand what’s happened between Rachel and Victor. If Smile takes place in the present day, and we can date the beginning of Victor and Rachel’s relationship to 1983 (based in a passing reference), how long was their relationship? She took his virginity, almost but not quite at least temporarily erasing his sexual trauma with something enjoyable. How long has Victor been drifting in this purgatory?
Sexual trauma has been vividly and gruesomely detailed in the past, particularly in such recent novels as Hanya Yanagihara’s epic A Little Life. The difference between that novel and Smile is not just that the latter is a quicker read. What distinguishes Smile from like-minded novels about characters dealing with such scars is the sharp detour Doyle takes in mood, tone and style within his final chapter. Not only do we learn the fantastic reality of Fitzpatrick’s true alternate identity; we also learn the true extent of harm Victor suffered. It wasn’t just a rare transgression or two from the brothers. We absorb the new normal the ending gives us because Doyle earned our trust for the majority of the novel. It’s a standard, sometimes routine and light story (even in the bleakness), but it never forgets the true implications of it title. Is Smile a command or a noun?
In the end, it’s probably the only thing we can do. Institutional abuse, shuffling around accused pedophiles from one parish school to another, has been happening everywhere secrets are easily grown. It’s a hopeless finalé soaked in fantasy and alternative reality, the only way any of us (readers and victims) can ever expect to put our collective pasts into understandable context. Doyle’s Smile is a painful and heartbreaking feat of literary magic, a beacon of last-minute salvation fantasy in a world that’s sadly become all too familiar.