The opportunities enjoyed by a young man long past, his lover moved on, Victor Forde returns to the town of his youth in Dublin. The familiar streets, neighborhood bars and rundown neighborhoods are comforting now, unfinished plans easier to ignore, a novel never quite written, pages scattered on a table. Doyle writes with a vivid sense of character and place, the Irish vernacular claiming not only the particularities of place but Victor Forde’s own story: a history that haunts his dreams but allows a little shine to a life gone quiet; a bit of notoriety to set him apart from the other men at his neighborhood bar; the cachet of once having been married to a celebrity and a few radio spots of his own.
Victor chooses a particular bar for its convenience, mere blocks from his apartment. His fellow patrons are a friendly bunch, a small society that comes together for a pint and a chat. The pub seems a good choice, though his first few visits are slightly marred by the intrusion of Eddie Fitzpatrick, a stranger who claims to know Victor from their high school days at a school run by the Christian Brothers. Fitzpatrick moves in too closely and too quickly, awakening Vincent’s unhappy memories of the authoritarian methods used by the brothers--overbearing, in fact, the same way that Fitzpatrick behaves, too friendly, too loud. In truth, Victor has no recollection of this man. He doesn’t want to dislike his school chum
and tries to be friendly in spite of the discomfort Eddie evokes. Finally a group of men comes to the pub, each with the easy swagger of longtime friends. Victor finally sees a chance to fit in, to be part of the camaraderie.
In spite of the discomfort nearness to Eddie inspires, Victor would love to have these men for friends
and gradually shares bits of his past with them. Victor speaks about his marriage and divorce, a narrative of past and present that evolves as the protagonist curates his incipient friendships at the pub, memories of his difficult years of the school of Christian Brothers and the unexpected romance with Rachel Carey, soon to be a well known celebrity. He shares how, matching wit and enthusiasm, the two become a “couple.” Rachel’s star ascends while Forde creates a different kind of notoriety on a local radio show. Drawing inspiration from Rachel, whose ambition and lust for life is unquenchable, Victor begins the book he’s always meant to write. Unfortunately, inspiration is as elusive as love. Victor bears the weight of his inability to find the words to tell his story, pride and ambition become instead failure and shame.
Victor remains elusive, torn between socializing with his prized new friends and the nightmares he suffers, unable to escape his subconscious and recollections of the years with his widowed mother and later, Rachel’s exuberance and the temporary respite of living in her shadow: “I hated and loved and envied and sneered.” A complicated man, Forde is a product of his culture, the constrictions of a fatherless family trapped in poverty, the rigid rules of a school steeped in religious dogma and chronically angry brothers in charge of adolescent boys. Avoiding Fitzpatrick, Victor is nevertheless in thrall to his overbearing presence. Laced with both humor and anguish, Smile is a fascinating rendition of a man imprisoned by a turbulent past seeking release and peace.