<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>
<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 151 <%-- End Volume Number --%>
April 23, 2004
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Roddy Doyle is inexhaustibly fascinated by his parents. But do the rest of us need to know about Rory and Ita?
Rory and Ita are Roddy Doyle's parents, who tell their story here more or less in their own words. The best-known member of the tribe restricts himself to an editorial role, with the laudable if quixotic aim of letting the specialness of these ordinary lives reveal itself without interference. If testimony needed so little shaping to beguile an audience of strangers, the novel would never have evolved from the primordial soup of daily lives.
Most books about writers' parents are posthumous, as far as their subjects go. Death is the usual prerequisite for proper understanding, or proper revenge. Doyle doesn't share, say, the queasily existential urgency of Blake Morrison reconstructing lives that need not have led to his own, or the dedication of Margaret Forster exploring the choices women made in a world that hobbled them. If Rory and Ita are exemplary, it is hard to say what they exemplify - the imperviousness of private lives to social change or simply the difficulty of conveying happiness at secondhand?
Rory Doyle and Ita Bolger were no sort of controversial couple. They went to the same primary school, she went to the same commercial college as a sister of his - and might have met any number of times before they did (at a dance at Templeogue Tennis Club on New Year's Eve 1947). By the time they kissed, two or three weeks later, Rory had decided this was the one. Their families approved: the Doyles were very welcoming to Ita and Rory was accepted by her father from the moment he rose to the challenge of a couple of stubborn crossword clues.
They married in September 1951 and moved into a new-built house where they still live. Rory and Ita are clearly the salt of the earth, but the flavour gets lost on its way to the page. The mild family anecdotes hardly warrant the rhetorical cadences of 'That caused a bit of consternation' or 'She called my father all the names'. Ita was in a restaurant once and a man there ('to our huge amazement') ate his cake with a fork. 'At that time it was unheard-of.'
These little crystallisations of character and incident tremble on the cusp of inconsequence. The flattest jokes are enough to get someone a reputation for wit and Rory is described as being 'ahead of his time' for liking baked beans with his egg and chips ('the waitress would kind of look at him'). If either of them remembers the title of a film they have seen, their son reverently appends the summary of it from Halliwell's Film and Video Guide.
Insights into social history are similarly dilute: it was thought common to have the banns read (£5 to the priest got them waived). People in the suburb of Inchicore, dominated by the railway engineering works, used to paint their houses to match the trains.
When events have a little more dash to them, it seems to be because they are apocryphal. Did Rory really weigh 15 pounds at birth or is that just family exaggeration? Can his uncle Bob Mullally really have been 'famous all over the world, wherever there were Irish Dominican missionaries', when his salient characteristic seems only to have been that he joined in the hymns? What's the evidence that a neighbour from Rory's childhood played the pipes for Hitler, who ordered a storm trooper to go down on his hands and knees as a human footstool for the performance (since the only chair was for the Führer's use)?
Occasionally Rory and Ita have different versions of events, which Doyle cross-references with exaggerated earnestness. Did Rory dress as Raleigh or Drake when they went to the College of Art dance? Did Father Dillon blow his nose on a white handkerchief or a red one when he took Mass at Baldoyle? This is a couple whose half-century of marriage would barely generate a single verse of 'I Remember It Well' from Gigi, so great is their placid accord.
This book is aimed at lovers of Doyle's fiction, who are more likely to be irritated than touched by his modesty in banishing himself to a footnote (literally; his birth is referred to in small print at the bottom of the page). Doyle's personality is strong, and bursts out of an introductory paragraph, where as an ex-teacher he proposes giving his parents eight out of 10 for their parenting, adding that they're making good progress.
Perhaps it's a good thing that this insufferable note isn't taken up later on, but, still, loyal readers will be disappointed. Self-suppression is clearly hard work for Doyle: when in a footnote on Cromwell he remarks, 'he spent only nine months in the country but is fondly remembered', he puts more snap in a single adverb than exists in the rest of the book.
No amount of humility can stop this being a vanity project, publishable only because of its author's name.
This article was first published in the British daily, the observer.