Books: When the Black Dog steals Dublin's funny bone
Book review: Brilliant, Roddy Doyle
The journalist John Waters recently said that he didn't believe in depression. Maybe he should read Brilliant, Roddy Doyle's new book for kids aged 9+, which is all about what happens when the people of Dublin get depressed because many of them are facing difficult economic circumstances. A tale for our troubled times.
In Brilliant, children Raymond (Rayzer) and Gloria overhear their granny saying that the Black Dog has settled on their Uncle Ben's back and he won't be okay until it's gone. Uncle Ben has lost his business, his home and his sense of fun, and he's now taking up precious space in their cramped semi-d in Dublin West.
Their granny mumbles that the Black Dog's after robbing Dublin's funny bone. That leaves the kids with two tasks: they have to slay the hound of hell and rescue the bone. And they do; and that's the great adventure of the book.
The action takes place in one night. Rayzer and Gloria discover that they are not the only children combatting the malevolent enemy. One girl's ma is down in the dumps. Another's da won't get out of bed after his job was shut down. But it's not only adults who grapple with isolation, loneliness and hopelessness. The Black Dog is bedded down in the hearts of children, too.
"You're not worth biting," the black dog sneers at them. So they band together to smash him and the chase begins. The shape-changing dog lures them on, flaunting his cunning power. They follow him into Phoenix Park and harness the help of the zoo animals who, along with the zoo-keeper, have also been at the mercy of the Black Dog.
The story climaxes with a battle at Clontarf, every bit as bloody as the one a millennium ago – this time not against the Vikings but against the Black Dog. For a while it's touch and go, but the kids save the day.
How? They have a priceless weapon in their armoury. It's that most hackneyed of Dublin words: "Brilliant". When their courage flags or the battle ebbs, the kids shout out the mantra, and that puts the frighteners on the brute. The gloom lifts, then encircles them again. "Brilliant!" they yell, louder, and the cloud fragments are blown away.
You always get more than you bargain for with Doyle. The bonus in this book takes the form of minor characters such as the deadpan seagulls who could be straight out of The Commitments. Another fabulous part is played by Ernie O'Driscoll, the coolest vampire kid in the depression-slaying army.
Doyle's reputation as both an adult and children's writer is now secure, but it was not always so. Despite the popularity of his debut novels, the Barrytown trilogy, literary critics were slow to give their approval. But the film of The Commitments secured global fame for the working-class northsiders bumbling their way through the 1980s recession. The Booker Prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha! Ha! Ha! affirmed Doyle's status. His distinctively snappy, dialogue-based style, his wit, and his insistence that the readers themselves flesh out his stories, make for fast reading but slow, simmering reflection.
If anything, Doyle's hilarious, razor-sharp wisecracks heighten the mundane tragedies that he chronicles. If there's one theme that runs through all his work, whether for adult or child, it's the battle against the blues. Arguably, his children's books are clearer winners. At their core is hope, whereas in his adult novels, characters often merely endure.
Doyle is the latter-day Beckett whose characters can't go on, but do. In Paddy Clarke Ha! Ha! Ha!, a novel for adults, when the reality of his parents' destructive relationship begins to dawn on 10-year old Patrick, he concludes that he's stupid. There's no room for him in their war. "Because I didn't know how to stop it from starting ... No amount of listening and being there would give it to me. I just didn't know. I was stupid."
Paula Spencer in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is another Doyle character ground down by a sense of inadequacy – and husband Charlo's ever-ready fists.
Jimmy Rabbitte, of The Commitments, made a comeback in Doyle's most recent adult novel, The Guts (the 2013 Irish Novel of the Year). In it, he offered his tuppence-worth on the gloomy Irish psyche in the current post-boom era: "We felt great about ourselves. For years after [the band's success]. An' tha' only changed a few years back. Now we're useless c***s again." The kids in Brilliant stand stronger against the Black Dog than Jimmy, who must face up to his bowel cancer. Doyle gives his child characters political power, in a fantastical way, of course. They get out there and imaginatively crunch that dog. The weapons of the imagination are the most enduring.
Not that all of Doyle's kids' books are about depression. They run the gamut from daft lavatory humour in The Giggler Treatment, Rover Saves Christmas and The Meanwhile Adventures to the deadly serious young adult A Greyhound of a Girl and the 2008 picture book Her Mother's Face, both dealing with death.
The Rover books are a take on postmodernism for kids, with Flann O'Brienish multiple endings and digressions, commercial breaks, ads for books (How to Sniff Friends and Influence People, published by Dog Poo Philosophy Press), and numerous features that keep intellectuals occupied. Ultimately, they underwrite the power of the young imagination.
If hope often flounders in Doyle's adult novels, it always triumphs in his books for children. As it does in this latest novel. Brilliant.
Brilliant, Roddy Doyle (Macmillan), €15.20. Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350