Perhaps it’s unfair, but for many readers it is nigh on to impossible to read a collection of short stories about Ireland by an Irish author without comparing it to what has to be the emblematic collection of Irish stories, James Joyce’s Dubliners. Happily the stories in Roddy Doyle’s new collection Bullfighting doesn’t suffer from the comparison. These are 13 stories that can hold their own with the best that Ireland has to offer, and that’s no mean feat. If there’s one thing the Irish can do, it’s tell stories. Doyle is no exception; he does them proud. He writes with humor and pathos. He has a justly acclaimed ear for the Irish voice. He has keen insights into the Ireland of the 21st century and keener insights into the men and women who inhabit it.
The stories in Bullfighting, eight of which had been first published in The New Yorker, all focus on aging men trying to cope with the problems of getting old. They are no longer working, or they are getting ready to retire. Their bodies are falling apart. Their children have grown old and left the nest. The passion has gone from their marriages. They reflect on a past when they felt useful and needed. “Recuperation,” the first of the stories in the collection, sets the theme. Hanahoe, the protagonist, is out walking for his daily exercise as recommended by his doctors. As he walks he reflects on both his past and his present. He sees the changes in the city: a kickboxing sign on a local school, Africans selling the Herald, McDonalds, women in trainers who walk faster than him. He thinks back to things that were and things that might have been. In some respects it is a very depressing story, but then at the end when he huddles into a bus shelter, he meets a friendly little girl waiting for her mother. She talks to him and this little bit of human contact renews him: “The rain is gone. It’s bright again.” While there’s life there’s hope.
That is the key to most of these stories; no matter how depressing things seem to get, the rain goes and skies brighten. In “Animals,” the aging out of work father counts his life, not in coffee spoons, but his children’s pets, the fish, the birds, the rabbits. He thinks back to the time he accidentally backed the car over their dog and then lied to the family about it. When he tells his son about it, the son reassures him: “We all knew we had a great da.” “The Dog” is about a couple that drifts apart, held together for awhile by their pet. In “The Photograph” a photo of an old friend at 25 placed on his coffin provides a kind of epiphany (to borrow a term associated with Joyce) for the protagonist. “Sad,” he muses, “and good had become the same thing.”
Some of the stories connect aging with changes in behavior. “Blood,” a comic story about a middle-aged man, who suddenly develops an inexplicable taste for blood-dripping raw meat, is certainly the weirdest of these. But then there’s “Funerals,” where a man begins to take pleasure in ferrying his elderly parents around to the funerals of their relatives, friends and acquaintances, and “Teaching” in which the protagonist has to balance his teaching and his drinking as he finds himself meeting the children of his old students in his classes.
“Bullfighting,” the title story, takes a quartet of middle aged men to Spain for what seems like a fairly depressing vacation. They are staying in a shoddy house owned by one of the men’s brothers. The town, although people seem to be awake at all hours, is described as quiet and boring. There is a bullfighting arena, but even that is described as boring. They drink, they swim, they read. When they are ready to leave, the protagonist in an almost drunken stupor wanders into the bull ring as a bull is being unloaded from a truck. While the bull never comes near him, it is as though the experience has in some way liberated him from the aging process. He goes back to the house and vomits in the pool, but that’s alright. “This was living, he thought. This was happiness.”
Other than “Blood” perhaps, these are stories that deal with the ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. In most of them nothing significant seems to happen. Men take walks, alone or with dogs. Men have problems with wives. A man finds a dead rat in his kitchen and it seems to upset the order of his universe. A man watches his sleeping wife and thinks back to when they were young. These are stories in which little happens, but what does happen is everything. They are the stuff of lives lived. It is the gift of Roddy Doyle that he is equally at home writing about movie making and the IRA — check out his Henry Smart trilogy — as he is about an ordinary guy rushing off to the hospital with kidney stones. And he can make you care about both.