(Spoiler Alert: Small children spend a lot of time torturing each another)
One of my favorite anecdotes to tell about when I was a kid (or more of a kid) is the time my younger cousin choked me with the chord of an N64 control. Growing up, my cousin, who was and remains two years younger than me, excelled at everything. He was better than me actually at everything, including basketball, school, character and later women and friendships. Zoom in on one day when he and I were playing Mario Tennis. For once I thought I might win, yet he somehow managed to ace me in the last game, which pissed me off enough that I hit him or what passed for hitting at that age, and we exchanged a few hits before I ended up facedown on the ground with a game control cord around my neck for what I’m sure was only seconds, but felt like the last few seconds. Soon enough he loosened the chord and I glared at him before we went back to playing. The most pathetic morsel of this tale though is that my cousin had recently broken his arm and had still managed to kick my ass both virtually and physically with one working arm while the other rest stiffly in one of those fiberglass cast.
I say this all because reading Irish author Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha sent me on more trips down memory lane than any book I’ve recently read. Although separated by decades and the Atlantic, the story of Paddy Clarke and his Barrytown friends felt like my own growing up in Belize although the terrain my cousins and I traversed was far smaller than Paddy’s, but made up for it in being much wilder. While Paddy and his ever-changing group of friends stole from local grocers and burned each other in ritual ceremonies of their own design, my cousins and I collected tiny crabs that would do battle and pelted each other with cocoa plums often to a point where our skin bruised from repeat hits.
Largely, I think Doyle’s ability to evoke these memories from the reader’s own childhood is thanks to the rhythm of the story. Told from Paddy’s point of view, the narrative jumps quickly between scenes where the reader often has a greater understanding of the turmoil circling around our main character and his family than he does. It reminded me of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, but rather than using childhood naïveté as a means of exploring more fantastical elements, Doyle employs such perspective to examine how chaotic and meaningful any moment can appear during childhood.
It’s a difficult book to read at times in instances where Paddy acts against what he desire due to his own inability to control the situation, Paddy’s sweet nature diminishing once he recognizes how little control he has. As the book progresses and Paddy becomes increasingly aware of his parent’s marital problems, the book slows in its jumping between anecdotes to reflect how much the stress of his home life consumes his mind, eventually effecting him physically as well.
Despite its heavier moments though, Doyle’s characters are often as funny here, intentionally or not, as those of the Rabbite family in The Barrytown Trilogy, one such instance being when Paddy and his family speculate about the disappearance of a neighbor during a fire who soon comes walking down their street.
Read this book if you were one of those kids that loved spouting factoids at any surrounding adults. Read this book if you’ve ever wanted to punch one of those kids.