This 100-yard dash of a novel, set in 1960s Dublin, is told entirely in the voice of a 10-year-old hellion. Paddy Clarke and his mates run wild through the working-class suburb of Barrytown, "messin' about" in construction sites and carrying on the snakes-and-snails-and-puppy-dogs'-tails traditions of boyhood.
Beyond tormenting teachers, their foolish pleasures include shoplifting, hunting for tar bubbles and solemnly sending a dead rat into the hereafter with a Viking funeral.
Readers of Doyle's best-selling "Barrytown Trilogy" (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van) know that the author has a genius for quick-witted, detailed storytelling. But it's easy to miss the artistry' behind his reconstruction of childhood group-think found in lines like "We all heard something. Kevin did." And a boy's simple, furrow-browed activities: "I'd hold my arms straight out till they ached and I spinned."
Though largely impressionistic, Paddy Clarke, which won Britain's coveted Booker Prize last fall, is not without plot. Our hero may regard the real world as a boring place where mean-spirited Americans fight defenseless hair)' gorillas in a land called Vietnam, but it's apparent that a disturbing drama is unfolding at home. His parents are heading for a split, and a free-floating anxiety begins to nudge Paddy's carefree daily routine. Doyle also re-creates the creeping cruelties of adolescence, as silly gibes give way to nasty insults and boys begin to fight amongst themselves, jostling to dominate the sane.
Every so often the curtai slips open a bit and a spot of advanced vocabulary reveals the man hidden behind the boy. Despite the occasional misstep, this is a bittersweet, respectful and vivid chronicle of youth that deserves a wide audience. (Viking, $20.95)