Book Review: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

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Rating: B/ There isn’t much funny about Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it’s a somewhat bleak and depressing book narrated by a ten-year-old unsupervised hell raiser who runs with a group of kids who are more Lord of the Flies than Our Gang. The lack of plot or traditional structure offered in this novel can be initially jarring and frustrating, but Paddy Clarke’s idiosyncratic, often tangential voice rings true and there is a real artistry hidden behind the seemingly random and directionless prose.

Paddy Clarke is an lad living in an increasingly industrialized Irish town some time in the 1960’s. Alternately naive and startlingly cruel, Paddy lives with his parents and his younger brother Sinbad (AKA Francis,) who he torments constantly in increasingly creative and sadistic ways. His parents’ marriage is crumbling, and like many children whose parents quarrel violently and often, Paddy has become hyper aware of the shifts in his parents’ moods and often struggles to keep his distant and occasionally abusive father happy.

Paddy exists within a hierarchy of boys that run amok around town committing mischievous and destructive acts, and who often act out violently against younger children, the poor housing estate kids, and each other. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha takes place over approximately one year in the eponymous character’s life, as relations between his mother and father become increasingly strained and the power dynamic between him and his much-put upon younger brother shifts.

Paddy is in many ways an unreliable narrator, and we certainly don’t seem to get the whole picture looking through his eyes. Despite being a bright boy and in many ways, a startlingly observant one, a lot of the events portrayed within the pages of this book are very vague and filtered through the biased and naive perspective of a ten-year-old. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in this book 90% of the time, definitely not in the way you’d expect a novel’s plot to develop.

Paddy goes from one subject to another with the consistency of someone with severe ADD, and there often doesn’t seem to be any correlation between one topic he discusses and the next. The book isn’t has hard to read as you might think, however; it’s a style the reader finds themselves adjusting to quickly. It’s easy to feel frustrated by Paddy’s voice, but it also seems like a very accurate portrayal of how a little kid might think and perceive things.

There are some funny moments in this novel, but they are few and far between and are overwhelmed by the overall darkness of the world the protagonist inhabits. It is often extremely hard to sympathize with Paddy, despite his youth; although he is not entirely devoid of redeeming qualities I often found myself getting frustrated by his his callousness and his short fuse. There are definitely many children like Paddy, as much as we might sometimes wish there weren’t, he is the kind of little boy people picture cheekily pulling the wings of flies when they describe childhood cruelty and malice.

Though, to be fair, he is not so much a budding sociopath as a troubled product of his environment. There were times I liked him, and admired his intelligence and his sense of humor and even innocence in the face of daunting obstacles. There were other times, such as the scene where he starts repeatedly kicking his friend’s little dog in the side for no reason other than that he can, that I hated him and wanted to see him get his little ass whupped.

Children can be cruel, but we need to raise them to be better. I’m all for a free-range childhood, but Paddy and his friends were less independent and more feral and out of control, running around town like Alex DeLarge and a group of tiny droogs. I felt bad for his brother and bad for the smaller, more vulnerable kids they mistreated. Childhood is often portrayed as an idyllic time in fiction, but in this novel it’s portrayed as something to survive and hopefully, move on from.

The narrative darts to and fro like a fever dream, and remains compulsively readable nonetheless. One issue I had was that I thought the book should have been longer. I found the ending left more questions inconclusively hanging than it answered; it just kind of ended. If you like ambiguous endings, you might think Doyle’s conclusion worked fine. I don’t like open-ended endings, as a general rule.

The ending of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha left me unsure of how to feel about the way things wound up, and I never felt convinced of any substantial development of the main character, although others have described this book as a ‘coming-of-age’ tale. If anything, I thought the younger brother, Sinbad, changed more than Paddy did. I left the book feeling kind of sad, but ambivalent.

On the other hand, it was often beautifully written while still remaining true to the voice and maturity level of it’s narrator. Kids’ voices are hard to capture, but I think this book did a better job than most at portraying the difficult psyche of a ten-year-old boy than most. A fairly short book which I finished easily in three days, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is convincingly wrought, refreshingly honest, and often surprisingly dark, portraying the disturbing undercurrents of childhood with freshness and candor.

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