On the cover of Roddy Doyle's new novel Paula Spencer, the author's name is nearly twice the size of the title, which could be read as shameless self-promotion ("Who cares what the title is? It's Roddy Fookin' Doyle!") or a sly bit of insight into Doyle's protagonist. Paula Spencer first appeared in Family, Doyle's TV-miniseries collaboration with Michael Winterbottom, and then in the book The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, which delved into her alcoholism and abusive marriage. Paula Spencer takes place eight years later, with Paula finally free of her now-dead ex-husband, and tentatively free of booze, which she's kicked just a few months before the story begins. But her self-esteem remains shite. She cleans houses for a living, and though she's almost accidentally sent two moderately successful grown children into the world, she has two still at home—one of whom drinks too much. And Paula's enthusiasm for her new sober life can't stand up against the doubt of people who've seen her at her worst.
The other graphic element on Paula Spencer's cover is a mostly empty bottle of milk, which represents the general sense of want that the book is predominately about. Paula wants a drink, she wants a dryer like the one her employer has—the kind that dries everything at just the right rate—and she wants to be one of those people who can buy a cake and a cappuccino at the Italian sweet shoppe and feel like she belongs. Doyle tells Paula's story in a limited third-person style, with frequent transcriptions of the arguments inside her head, and occasional jarring temporal jumps. He also grounds it in a specific era, just a couple of years ago, when The White Stripes were on the radio and the U.S. Congress was debating Terri Schiavo. The book is an expansive sketch of modern Dublin, with its rising immigrant class and upsurge in nouveau riche, as seen by someone who thinks it's all grand, though she regrets that she was too old-school Irish working-class to appreciate it as it was happening.
Is there a contemporary writer more attuned to the way people talk and worry in the 21st century? Probably not. And is it fair to compare Doyle to James Joyce, while pointing out that the former has the advantage of actually being readable? Again, probably not. Joyce was a genius. Doyle's merely brilliant.