Comedy and the Booker Prize

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Over at Shiny New Books, it has been ‘Booker Week’ – a decade by decade review of (nearly) all the winning titles and some that missed out on the prize. One of my contributions was to re-read and review Roddy Doyle’s winner – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.  An extended review follows.

I’m going to see Doyle and Paul Beatty tomorrow as part of the Golden Booker celebrations at the Royal Festival Hall – Natalie Haynes will be chairing their conversation about comic novels. I am very much looking forward to that. The comic novel is under-represented in literary awards, yet comedy (and satire) give such opportunity for social comment.

It is a quandary why the Booker judges so rarely reward comedy, for when it is well done, it can be sublime, as in Roddy Doyle’s first shortlisted novel in 1991, The Van. In that book, the final part of his Barrytown trilogy, we turn to the father of the Rabitte family, and follow the trials and tribulations of the middle-aged Jimmy sr and his mate as they try to make some money from a fish and chips van. For me, it was the best part of the trilogy, the chucklesome pages slip by – but perhaps The Van was just too much fun to read for the Booker judges.

Now Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a rather different animal to those expecting more of the gentle humour of the Barrytown trilogy. Still set in the Dublin suburbs, the novel is written from the point of view of a schoolboy and follows his life for roughly a year. There are some comic moments of course, but there is an underlying drama unfolding as the year goes on.

Paddy is mischievous, always up for a lark, running with his gang who are definitely modelled on Just William’s – Paddy tells us he’s read all 34 of the books – but they are naughtier, more streetwise, cocky and rude as only ten-year-olds can be, and they love fighting. Paddy also has to put up with his younger brother Francis, known as Sinbad, hanging on, typical sibling rivalry, but Paddy does look out for Francis.

Paddy tells us about his days in vignettes – there are no chapters. In typical Doyle fashion, speech is indicated by a dash, and there are long conversations between Paddy’s mind-dumps. The structure is very stream of consciousness, with Joycean echoes (not that I’ve read any Joyce, but this is what I’m told!). Paddy also jumps from one thing to another and the reader must run with the non-sequiturs.

Liam and Aidan had a dead mother. Missis O’Connell was her name.
-It’d be brilliant, wouldn’t it? I said.
-Yeah, said Kevin. -Cool.
We were talking bout having a dead ma. Sinbad, my little brother started crying. Liam was in my class at school. He dirtied his trousers one day – the smell of it rush at us like the blast of heat when an oven door was opened – and the master did nothing. He didn’t shout of slam his desk with his leather or anything. He told us to fold our arms and go asleep and when we did he carried Liam out of the class.

After inserting the story about one of his gang doing ‘a gick in me pants’, Paddy tells us about nicking stuff from a building site to make a boat before going back to his friends not having a ma any more, his mind flitting from thought to thought. story to story.

There is a subtle sense of the passing of time in the novel, although Paddy rarely refers to any dates or times other than Christmas. For instance, as the novel goes on, Paddy and his friends must get used to new gangs moving in as the Corporation puts up new houses nearby:

Over at the Corporation houses, that end, wasn’t ours any more. There was another tribe there now, tougher than us, though none of us said it. Our territory was being taken from us but we were fighting back. We played Indians and Cowboys now, not Cowboys and Indians.

There is also the worsening relationship between Paddy’s parents. At the beginning, his da is just a bit strict with the boys, quick to punish, but quick to get back to normal. As the year passes, he gets meaner, and Paddy listens to and witnesses many rows which get worse and worse. Paddy becomes adept at breaking in on them to protect his mother by his sudden presence and by the novel’s end, his da has left making Patrick ‘the man of the house now’.

There’s no doubting that Doyle totally nails Paddy’s voice. Everything and everyone in the book is coloured by his narration. My only problem was that most of Paddy’s life outside the home was a little boring – variations on the same old japes at school and at play. Paddy does have one, then later another, little sisters – but as far as he’s concerned, girls aren’t part of his life. His ma, and the assorted old ladies and teachers that the boys torment, are the only real female figures in this boy-centred story.

The more experimental form makes Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha a more difficult book to love than The Van, but an easier choice for the Booker judges to reward – although it was still considered  controversial at the time. As Doyle said, on winning the prize:

Jesus, I don’t know if this is good, bad or indifferent. But it makes my friends smile.

Source: Own copy

Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) Vintage paperback, 240 pages.

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7 thoughts on “Comedy and the Booker Prize

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Even back when this book was set, the Just William books were for boys, and I can imagine that all men brought up on those would love this book as your partner did. I’m with you.

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