Paddy Clarke is not a funny story. The overwhelming feeling is one of palpable sadness, despite several humourous episodes, especially towards the earlier parts of the book. Ten year old Paddy, the eldest son of a large Irish family in fictitious(?) Barrytown of the sixties, thoroughly enjoys the company of his friends – Kevin, Liam, Aidan, Ian McEvoy and James O’Keefe – playing football, stealing magazines, knocking on doors to pester unsuspecting neighbours, writing names in wet cement, tussles among each other, and even the cruel Zentoga cult ritual. He also loves his younger brother, whom he endearingly calls Sinbad, though he is mostly a bully to him, giving him dead legs and showing him who’s the eldest, more out of habit, because little brothers are to be hated. There are numerous amusing incidents, one where an inspired Paddy plays Father Damien, and gets Sinbad to play a leper.
–Do it again.
Sinbad grabbed my legs.
–No, no, Kam – Kam
—I can’t remember it.
—Can I not just say Patrick?
—No, I said. Do it again and you’d better get it right.
—I don’t want to.
I gave him half a Chinese torture. He grabbed my legs.
—You’ll kick me.
—I won’t. I will if you don’t.
Sinbad grabbed me around the ankles. He held me tight so my feet were stuck.
—No, no Kamiano! We want to stay as long as you are here.
—Okay my children, I said. —You can stay.
—Thanks very much, Kamiano, said Sinbad.
He wouldn’t let go of my feet.
As Paddy’s Ma and Da begin to drift apart, he becomes increasingly aware of their rift, the raised voices, slamming doors, the tense moods. He tries to reason: “Why didn’t Da like Ma?” His Ma was fine, much nicer than others’. It must be Da. “It was all him against her”. But in the end, he decides “it took two to Tango”.
There must have been a reason why he hated Ma. There must be something wrong with her, at least one thing. I couldn’t see it. I wanted to. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be on both sides. He was my da.
In the wake of the separation, Paddy’s own world begins to change. He picks a fight with his best friend Kevin, falls out of his group, finds himself isolated. But he has grown up, starting to see himself as the “man of the house”, for his father would leave. “They were only kids” — he forgives the teasing of his erstwhile friends.
Roddy Doyle’s prose is sparse, his minimalistic style revealing Paddy’s world in an unsentimental manner. He retains a narrative that is inchoate and jumbled, very appropriate for the perspective of a ten year old. The combination turns out to be a very effective one, making us powerfully aware of the cruelties we are capable of and how the bitterness of parents can cloud the lives of their children.