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He Talks the Talk--Gaelic, That Is : Movies: Irish writer Roddy Doyle eschews Hollywood as corrupt, yet finds success in adapting two of his novels for the big screen.

March 23, 1994|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Roddy Doyle stood by the window of his 12th-floor hotel room and peered through the hard gray afternoon light at what he assumed to be the general direction of Los Angeles, conjuring his mythic picture of what the city 379 miles south looked like.

"This is as close to L.A. as I want to get," he said. An odd sentiment, coming from someone who had successfully adapted his first two novels--"The Commitments" and "The Snapper"--to the screen and was at work on the screenplay for his third work in the Barrytown trilogy, "The Van." As is true with a lot of people, Los Angeles was synonymous with Hollywood, which Doyle considers intolerably corrupt.

"I have an aversion to L.A.," he continued. "Maybe it's because I disagree with the way movies are made, the star system and all." He added cryptically: "I bet there are streets there with no pavements."

Doyle was at the end of an arduous national tour to promote his Booker Prize-winning novel "Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha," and the strain showed. For two weeks, he had been up at 5 for crack-of-dawn radio and TV interviews, and then evenings of staged public readings. Now his conversation skipped like a needle over a cracked disc. He was tired, and homesick for his wife and two young sons--mention of whom drew his gaze toward another imagined destination: Dublin.

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But a sly, sotto-voce humor was irrepressibly evident as well. Doyle shares with his working-class Barrytown characters a chronic, low-frequency indignation, expressed in continuing "fancy tha' " quips and a certain piquant vulgarity. His motor is always running.

"Oh, I've come at a great time," he said. "I've been listening all about the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, the Bobbitts." He smiled, as if to say, "What a circus!"

"We get Oprah (Winfrey) over in Ireland," he went on. "Sally Jessy Raphael too. Christ, you can't escape 'em. In Portland there were five of those shows on, all at once. I looked out the window to see if there was anyone left on the street."

As for the hours, he was hanging tough. "If Margaret Thatcher can live on three hours of sleep, I can survive on five."

At 35, Doyle occupies an unusual place in the cultural scheme of things, a serious novelist--some consider him Ireland's best right now--who doesn't look at screenwriting as a whore's trade. An internationalist whose roots are thickly entangled with the life of Northern Dublin.

(In selling the idea for a soul band, one of the characters in "The Commitments" says, with touching absurdity, "The Irish are the blacks of Europe, the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. Say it loud, 'I'm black and I'm proud.' ")

And after "Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha," a masterwork of shadowed indirection that shows us how being a 10-year-old is a full-time job, Doyle has been compared to the James Joyce of "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." The comparison makes Doyle uncomfortable: "Joyce was tuned into that state of being very well. But there's a school of writing which, though it may be unfair to summarize this way, has a lot to do with writers showing us how big their brains are. Like Anthony Burgess, who wants to show us that he has the biggest vocabulary in the world.

"The type of writing I prefer is simple, straightforward and serves the characters. I like writers like Elmore Leonard, Anne Tyler, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, where you tend to forget you're reading. With 'Paddy Clark,' I only hoped people could be conned into believing they were inside a 10- or 11-year-old."

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Besides, the very idea of setting out "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of the race" is something that would make Doyle bolt for the nearest exit. He's probably closer to Anton Chekhov, the good doctor who bore his characters' ridiculous affectations and self-dramatized torments with grace and bemusement, because he knew that everyone's body eventually breaks down in pain and dies, and that the enemy of life isn't death, it's futility.

Like Chekhov, Doyle's forgiveness of just about everything and everyone filters into his characters. Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. can only shake his head at the explosive thickheadedness that tore the Commitments apart and go on polishing his answers to an imagined press interviewer. No sense in keeping a grudge.

When his sister, Sharon, gets pregnant and won't divulge the name of the father in "The Snapper," the Rabbitte family comically adjusts itself around her and the impending arrival. In "The Van," Jimmy Sr. loses his job as a builder and warily takes up a second career selling fish and chips from a refurbished lunch truck.

Obviously, this is not the spiteful grim-lipped Dublin of "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," where the heavy cargo of censure shifts against the troubled and the weak, and a 16-year-old housemaid is thrown into the street because she's had the bad luck to be raped by a boarder.

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