Monday, June 1, 2009

PLAYING NOW: RODDY DOYLE'S "NEW BOY"

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 20, Number 6 (June 2009), p. 10.

The so-called Celtic Tiger, a period of unprecedented economic prosperity in Ireland, seems now to have lost much of its bite. But its teeth marks—at least in the form of unprecedented social changes underwritten in large part by that prosperity—appear to be deeply permanent, and the title story of Roddy Doyle’s collection The Deportees (2007) provides one gauge of the transformation that occurred in Ireland during the Tiger's two-decade flourishing. Bringing back to literary life the character of Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., the protagonist of Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments (1987), “The Deportees” is a sequel (of sorts) in that Jimmy, now married and with three children (a fourth arrives in the course of the story), still harbors the dream of managing a commercially successful group of Irish musicians.

In The Commitments, the band he organized performed American “soul music”—the songs of Otis Redding and James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett—under the premise articulated by Jimmy to the band members this way in the 1991 adaptation of the novel to the big screen, directed by Alan Parker: “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud—I’m black and I’m proud.” In “The Deportees” Jimmy assembles an even more motley crew to perform the music mostly of Woody Guthrie, the so-called “dustbowl troubadour” whose songs both record and represent a substantial swatch of the historical fabric of depression-era American life. Besides the music they perform, the most conspicuous difference between Jimmy’s two bands is the ethnic makeup. Reflecting on the radical change that mass immigration from continental Europe, from Africa, and beyond brought to Ireland by the mid-1990s, Roddy Doyle writes in his Foreword to The Deportees: “I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one.” This is the country that Jimmy Rabbitte finds himself in two decades after the heyday of The Commitments when, bumped into and knocked over by a young Romanian on Parnell Street, then run over by an Italian bicycle courier, he experiences an epiphany that even the ultra-cosmopolitan James Joyce would have had trouble imagining exactly a century earlier. Helped to his feet by the Romanian lad and by an African woman, he realizes that his new band must literally embody Dublin’s new multi-ethnic demographic: “Jimmy’s head was hopping as he stood up. . . . But he was grinning. Jimmy had his group.”

Detailing the evolving dynamic—both musical and interpersonal—of The Deportees, the rest of the story reads as a sort of parable of multicultural co-existence in latter-day Dublin. Indeed, comprising an imposing lead singer from Africa named King Robert, a drummer from Moscow, a young woman guitarist from America, a djembe drummer from Nigeria, a woman singer from Spain, a Romanian father and son on accordion and trumpet respectively, a guitarist from Roscommon, a female survivor (still purple-haired) of Dublin’s punk scene of the late 1970s on bass, and sixty-year-old traveler Paddy Ward as an additional lead singer, the makeup of the band is fraught with tensions, suspicions and the potential for profound intercultural misunderstandings. But with Guthrie’s music of social conscience, and of social consequence, as their common denominator, The Deportees transcend their differences to emblematize—clearly—Roddy Doyle’s vision for a harmonious new Dublin.

In fact, that vision is the common denominator for the eight stories that constitute the collection, though it may be expressed most powerfully in the one titled “New Boy.” As its universally familiar title hints, this story is about a “new boy,” a black African immigrant named Joseph, on his first day in a classroom of fellow nine-year-olds. Immediately targeted for abuse by young hooligans Christian Kelly and Seth Quinn, Joseph has to learn how to interpret and to negotiate the social codes that operate in this microcosm of Dublin itself. Carrying, unbeknownst to his classmates, the emotional baggage of earlier childhood trauma in his war-torn native country (unnamed in the story), Joseph proves altogether capable of handling both the verbal and the physical bullying inflicted on him: his unruffled response to Christian and Seth actually ruffles them to the point that they come around to forming what would have seemed at first an unlikely alliance with the “new boy.” Constructed partly in opposition to the nosy classroom know-it-all Hazel O’Hara and partly in opposition to their well-intentioned but mostly ineffectual teacher (whose last name Joseph never catches), this alliance reinforces in comic fashion Doyle’s serious belief in Dublin’s—and Ireland’s—multicultural future.

Well, actually Dublin’s multicultural present, for in his typically witty fashion Doyle has the ultimate bond between Joseph and his tormentors hinge on their joint recognition of their teacher’s incessant repetition of the word “now.” Putting into the teacher’s mouth every imaginable variation on the word’s grammatical versatility—from a tut-tutting “Now now” to a general alert that there is schoolwork to be done to a stern warning regarding unacceptable classroom behavior—Doyle reminds his readers through the teacher’s unconscious verbal tic (in the course of the narrative she says the word at least twenty-eight times, with almost as many different inflections) that this story does represent Dublin now: that the city has changed utterly and irreversibly and that the entire populace must adjust and adapt and individuals must accordingly learn not only tolerance for but also generous acceptance of the “otherness” of others.

Aptly, then, the adaptation of “New Boy” as a short film by Irish-American writer and director Steph Green has been added to the roster of films available for free online viewing at the Responsibility Project website sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company as a spin-off of their publicly acclaimed series of “pay-it-forward” television commercials. The website explains: “We thought, if one TV spot can get people thinking and talking about responsibility, imagine what could happen if we went a step further? So we created a series of short films, and this website, as an exploration of what it means to do the right thing.” In an interview on the popentertainment.com website, Green explains how Doyle’s story first appealed to her: “It’s really interesting the degree to which we are strangers—and not strangers. What does it mean to have to sit next to someone? That’s the same in a classroom as on the bus. There is something about the humanity of that which I like looking at.” Starring Olutunji Ebun-Cole as Joseph, Norma Sheahan as the teacher, Simon O’Driscoll as Christian, Fionn O’Shea as Seth, and Sinead Maguire as Hazel, the adaptation was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 in the short film category. Just eleven minutes long, the film of “New Boy” can be viewed via YouTube.

13 comments:

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