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BOOK REVIEW

Though your heart is breaking

Matt Rota for the Boston Globe

By John Freeman Globe Correspondent 

What we laugh about and what scares us are often the same thing. How else are we to deal with the big bad things?

You snatch some of their power back, one laugh and scream at a time, before they can steal more of it from you.

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All the best comedians and horror novelists know this — think of Richard Pryor joking about his abusive father or Stephen King conjuring another murderous car after nearly being killed by one.

And sometimes you try to bury the big bad things. All while their poison seeps into the groundwater.

In his 11th new novel, “Smile,” Roddy Doyle spins the swift and devastating tale of a man who comes to know the consequences of laughing it off.

Victor, the book’s 54-year-old narrator and a failed music journalist, will be familiar to readers of Doyle’s warmly inhabitable universe. He likes a pint and knows what he’ll play on a jukebox. He married young and stumbles bewildered through late middle age, in his case alone.

There’s a son somewhere, but as he tells one man without needing to add more, “He’s away.”

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“That seemed to be enough,” Victor says. “You reached an age when everyone’s kids were away, or back.”

Some writers return from screenwriting with their great gifts hollowed out. Doyle emerged from “The Commitments” and other cinema errands an even finer writer, capable of evoking a world of life in two words — “He’s away.”

As the book opens Victor has recently decamped to a bachelor apartment, and a great deal of the novel unfolds in a pub near his secondary school, which he decides to make his regular for something to do.

On his first night there, Victor meets a bluff, lumbering local named Fitzgerald, whom he doesn’t recognize, but who clearly recalls Victor. “What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you?” Fitzgerald asks.

“And look at us now. Would he fancy us now, Victor?”

The exchange is typical of Fitzgerald but not atypical of the people around whom Victor grows up, where slagging is the melody to almost every exchange.

Fitzgerald has all sorts of reasons to take Victor down a peg: We soon learn Victor’s ex-wife, Rachel, was an Irish television celebrity and that he’d had his name in the paper.

From this moment the novel splits into three threads, one tracing Victor’s arc through a Christian Brothers school; a second involving his relationship with Rachel, the beautiful daughter of a cruel and uptight man; and the third tracing Victor’s swerving entry to a redefined present life, alone.

Doyle makes it clear that Victor had been robbed of something essential early on, and it’s not clear whether it’s marriage, his potential as a writer, or something deeper in his past, maybe his childhood itself. For the first half of the book we read in search of this answer.

Has anyone written as beautifully as Doyle on how love and violence lean right up against each other in childhood? From the Booker Prize winning “Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha” to “Smile,” Doyle’s books bruise and cheer at the same time.

When Victor is inappropriately addressed by a priest in class (“Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile’’), he is labeled the “Queer.’’ “I knew the others were going to kill me,” Victor tell us, and soon as class is out a beating descends.

“They were all over me now. But it wouldn’t last; I knew that too. I was kicked, punched, spat on.” And then it’s over. “Only my real friends stayed behind. They laughed. And I laughed . . . Doc picked my jumper off the ground and walloped the muck off it.”

And so it goes — a hurt made better because it’s worn together. The Brothers are so strange and far-away the students posit they’re zombies. Victor earns a deal of respect for his ability to maneuver between them.

Jumping from this period, Doyle presents Victor’s life as a surprising Sunday magazine spread. In his 20s, he meets and falls in love with Rachel, and she returns it.

In the heat lamp of her love, Victor blossoms into something strong if unlovely. He makes his name taking bands down a notch in a local rag. He moves from there into politics, which earns him a roving spot on radio, where he becomes the guy to tell the Irish what’s wrong with their country.

It’s in this capacity that Victor breaks the taboo around what happened to him long ago with the Brothers. Before he knows it, the secret’s out and into the open. And then he does something strange: “I listened to myself, making small of it.”

One of the beauties of “Smile” is that Doyle doesn’t impugn the making light of it. In the present, at the pub, Victor gets to know a group of men like him, a little restless as they enter into what Richard Ford called the Permanent Period.

They spend their time drinking, and when they begin slagging him off, Victor knows he’s OK. “I was still one of them — just about.”

It’s those last words, so masterfully deployed, which give you a clue as to the dark place this book will visit. The evolution is so swift you feel pushed along by a ghostly hand. In its closing pages, “Smile” — which has given us a life, fully lived, a life of love and music, and warmth — rips that life straight from our hands. Would that it felt more like fiction.

SMILE

By Roddy Doyle

Viking, 214 pp., $25

John Freeman is the editor of “Freeman’s,” and the author of “Maps,” a collection of poems.