Sometimes all you want from a book is a little relief. Work can suck up a lot of energy, even if you like it. And life itself can be full of commitments and surprises.
With finals week at Portland State all done and a long-distance plane ride ahead of me, I was more than ready to pick up a lighthearted novel. Roddy Doyle’s “The Snapper” filled the bill.
En route to and from Missouri, I enjoyed this breezy little book (216 pages) as if Doyle himself were reading it aloud and sharing pints with me at a Dublin pub. Unlike most novels, which are heavy on narrative and character development, this one feels like it’s nearly all dialogue. Make that effin’ funny, sometimes crass, but always honest, dialogue.
The story centers on a working-class Irish family and the recently announced pregnancy of the eldest daughter, 20-year-old Sharon. She’s unmarried and living at home, working at a retail job that bores her, and she’s decided to keep the identity of the father a secret.
Jimmy Sr., the Rabbitte family patriarch, struggles at first to accept the news. Ireland, after all, is a Catholic country and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is hardly something he’d celebrate with his drinking buddies. (Keep in mind, the novel was published in 1991, so many a real-life Irish family would have reacted in the same way.)
Friends and neighbors join the Rabbittes in speculating about the father’s identity. When Jimmy Sr. hears nasty things being said about Sharon, he gets into a fight at the local pub and comes home with a bloody nose, perceiving it as a badge of honor for defending his daughter’s reputation.
But instead of saying thanks, Sharon scolds her father, telling him to mind his own business because she’s an adult who can fight her own battles.
Jimmy Sr. shuts down in resentment, ignoring Sharon for weeks until she calls him on it. Chastened once again, he admits to himself that he’s embarrassed by Sharon’s situation. From then on, he adopts an entirely different attitude, coming to realize that his role to is support his daughter and love her baby, no matter who the father is.
It’s a sweet story with tender moments between father and daughter. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with more F-bombs than you can count — coming from Jimmy Sr. and his pals, as well as Sharon and her friends — and repeated references to Jaysis! (Jesus!)
Here’s one scene where Sharon and her friends are out drinking (yes, pregnant Sharon) and one of them, Jackie, is telling the group about breaking up with her boyfriend Greg at a cafe, after he’d accused her of stealing the cream out of his chocolate eclair.
“He stuck his tongue in me ear once,” Jackie told them when they’d settled down again. “An’, I’m not jokin’ yis, I think he was trying’ to get it out the other one. I don’t know what he f***in’ thought I had in there.”
She laughed with them.
“He licked half me brains ou’. Like a big dog, yeh know.”
“His sense o’ direction wasn’t the best either, d’yis know what I mean?”
They roared again.
“Jackie O’Keefe! You’re f****in’ disgustin’ ‘!”
Roddy Doyle is an accomplished writer with several novels, screenplays, film adaptations, TV scripts, children’s books and freelance articles to his credit.
I’d read Doyle once before, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Lots of sharp dialogue. Characters who are rough around the edges. Themes of love, loyalty and honesty.
It wasn’t until after I’d finished the novel that I realized I had no idea what the characters looked like. That is, Doyle made no effort to describe anyone’s physical attributes — hair color, body shape, etc. — and instead invested all his effort into creating conversational dialogue that captivated me from the opening sentence to the final page.
Who cares what Jimmy Sr. or Sharon looked like? What’s more important is how they navigated the stages of her surprise pregnancy while dealing with the ups and downs of their own relationship.
That is what really matters. And that is the sign of one helluva writer.
Photograph of Roddy Doyle: rte.ie