Running in the Dark

city boys“We ruled Bayside. We camped up on the garage roofs. We lit a fire. We could see in all directions. We were ready for any attack.”

For a writer to describe adults going about their lives, and do it well, is difficult (to say the least). To describe the lives of children, and do it well—how much more difficult, to get into a world that in some ways is like a different universe from the one where we spend most of our lives. In that children’s world, the reasons for things are different from what adults know, there are mysteries created by the adults, and there is always the knowledge that power resides with the grown-ups.

In the novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the Irish writer Roddy Doyle has used first-person to create a narrative entirely in the voice and from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy. Paddy Clarke is no angel, but he does seem very human as he makes his way through the riddle of childhood.

There is no plot in any usual sense, nor really even a pretense of plot, a bold move by a confident writer, and it’s a decision that works. The reason to read this book is simply to be with Paddy, to follow him around in his world, listen to his thoughts, and feel his feelings. In doing so, the reader gets a rather remarkable immersion into the mind of a young Irish boy.

Listen to Paddy’s voice, as he refers to a bag of biscuits (cookies) at another boy’s house, to the desks at school, and to trying to get his father to do something:

  • “They were broken biscuits, a brown bag of them; there was nothing wrong with them except they were broken.”
  • “All desks smelt the same, in all the rooms.”
  • “I wished he’d done it the first time. It wasn’t fair the way he made you nearly cry before he changed and did what you wanted him to.”

Despite the absence of plot, there is a definite feeling of movement in the narrative. In part this comes from a sense of chronology, as we watch time pass. More importantly to the reader’s sense of involvement, Paddy closely watches (and is emotionally engaged in) the shaky relationship of his parents, and we see changes in that relationship as Paddy experiences them. We also get a feeling in the novel of seeing some emotional growth in Paddy.

Perhaps to keep us immersed in the boy’s world, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is written in a single flowing narrative, with no chapters or sections. Instead it is broken randomly into parts that immediately follow one another on the same page, separated only by a blank line to mark the change. A conversation Paddy has with his brother about their father, for instance, is suddenly followed by Paddy’s comments on the colors of the venetian blinds. For some sections, listening to the flow of Paddy’s thoughts can almost give a feeling of stream of consciousness.

Over time we see Paddy with his family (mother, father, and little brother Francis, who he calls Sinbad), and we see him at school, in stores, at church, and—in particular—all over town with friends, exploring constructions sites, in an old barn, or playing games in the street. Speaking of one of the construction sites, where a giant pipe has been installed, Paddy says, “Running through the pipe was the most frightening brilliant thing I’d ever done. I was the first to do it for a dare, run all the way down, from outside my house down to the seafront, in the pitch black after a few steps.”

These boys are at times juvenile delinquents in training, both cruel and destructive, torturing one another, stealing and breaking things, yet in the end they seem real, the way young boys might be. Paddy comes off sometimes as hard and mean, at other times as sentimental, and at still other times as scared or upset.

He is a boy trying to make sense of a very confusing world. In one of his interpretations of that world, he says, “Mister Quigley was dead and Missis Quigley wasn’t that old, so she must have done something to him; that was what everyone thought. We decided that she’d ground up a wine glass and put the powder in his omelette—I’d seen that in Hitchcock Presents and it made a lot of sense.”

Many other things do not make sense to Paddy, but in this book we can watch him try to deal with them.

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