Review: Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle
Jonathan Cape, €15.49, Hardback
Roddy Doyle is something of a national hero. He can be credited with bringing the modern urban Irish to the world.
He reinvented the international perception of the Irish as bog trotters straight out of a damp, rural McGahern novel and turned them into duckers and divers, scuts and shysters, in bleak suburbia.
In Doyle's books, the Irish were real Dubs who were part of the city Doyle grew up in, the Dublin of the 1960s that consisted of outdoor bathrooms, bedsits and fry-ups.
Doyle is also one of the few modern writers that straddle the divide between populist vernacular and literary establishment with The Barrytown Trilogy, in particular The Commitments, which was turned into the cult film of the same name. He won the Booker prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which has sold more than any other Booker winner. In 2009, he established his community creative writing centre, Fighting Words, where he regularly tutors children and adults alike.
Quite the list of achievements, which makes it all the more interesting that Bullfighting, Doyle's latest collection of short stories, focuses on middle-aged men dealing with growing older, losing their sense of self and flailing around for some meaning in their increasingly small lives.
All the stories feature men and they give a fascinating insight into the male psyche, with its vulnerabilities and flaws, self-delusions and striving to be better. From the ailing man in Recuperation to the gang of four friends on a boys' holiday in the title story to the changing relationship between a son and his elderly parents in Funeral.
Male friendships get a good outing here, the camaraderie and escape they provide from wives and children, the distinctly masculine sort of understanding and compassion they offer.
Stylistically, the writing is straight-forward. Doyle doesn't go in for any fancy tricks (something Tom from the story Sleep might consider 'bourgeois'), but the points Doyle is making here are much more complex.
The overriding theme here is mortality and how everything changes within the encroaching grip of age, from sex to relationships, health and friendships, dreams and ambitions.
Sex features large here, and Doyle analyses how the dwindling of spontaneity and passion within relationships impacts on the sense of worth of the characters.
Read as a whole, these stories pack a considerable cumulative punch, a resounding wake-up call to anyone who feels time running by too fast or the loss of meaning in their everyday lives and relationships. In fact, the stories are much more powerful read together than on their own.
In Teaching an alcoholic teacher remembers how he was once capable of inspiring his pupils with a 'seize the day' fervour. That's also the most powerful message of this collection. It's a reminder that we will all reach middle age, all grow old.
As The Slave, one of the most disjointed but most affecting stories in the collection, points out: "It's getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless. It's death becoming something real."
That all sounds very grim, and in many ways it is, but the stories have plenty of Doyle's irreverent humour and language too. He ends the collection with the optimistic story, Sleep, which seems somewhat autobiographical in that it tells the story of a teacher who gives up teaching to write. The story ends with a realisation that getting older might be cruel, but it is the natural order of things.