Fiction – hard cover; Jonathan Cape; 214 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It’s been a long time since I have read anything by Roddy Doyle. I devoured his Barrytown Trilogy in the mid-1990s, absolutely loved his Booker-winning Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha and got ready to slash my wrists over The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. But I was less impressed with a Star Called Henry and so I didn’t bother reading the two follow-ups in that series.
But when his latest book popped through the letter box unsolicited a month or so ago, I figured I should give the poor man a second chance.
Bullfighting is a volume of short stories that could be best categorised as tales of male middle-age angst. There are 13 stories in this collection, many of which have been published elsewhere, including the New Yorker and The Faber Book of New Irish Short Stories.
The men in this book are passive, weak and out of touch with their emotions. Those that are married seem unable to communicate on any meaningful level with their wives. In The Joke, one man feels as if he’s invisible, that he’s being taken for granted by his wife, but he cannot articulate the problem — “Sick of what, but? He wasn’t sure. The whole thing. Everything. He was just sick of it” — so nothing is resolved.
It’s even worse for Kevin in the story Ash. His wife tells him she’s leaving him, but then she returns for one last romp in bed — “She rode the arse off me” — before disappearing again. He doesn’t know if his wife is ever coming back. Indeed, he’s not even sure if his wife has properly left him, because she’s not taken any personal belongings with her. He is stuck at home with the kids, but does nothing — he doesn’t even have the courage to make a phone call — to clarify the situation, to express his anger, or his dismay. He is kind of pathetic.
The over-riding theme here is men — “miserable poor shites” as one character describes it — stuck in ruts, of boredom, of monotony. Hanahoe, in the opening story Recuperation, puts it like this:
It’s depressing, a life, laid out like that. Mass, driving the kids to football, or dancing. The pint on Friday. The sex on Sunday. Pay on Thursday. The shop on Saturday. Leave the house at the same time, park in the same spot. The loyalty card. The bags. The routine. One day he knew: he hated it.
But just as I was getting sick of the repetitive themes — the family men growing old, coming to terms with the kids leaving home, of parents requiring care, of friends and neighbours dying of one disease (usually cancer) or another — Doyle throws a curve ball in the form of Blood, a startling story about a married man who develops a taste for raw steak and wonders if he might be turning into a vampire.
The stories that follow are slightly more edgy, although they are still peopled by men facing the fact that they have already lived more than half of their lives. The signature story, Bullfighting, hints at men finally opening up and communicating with one another beyond the usual pub-talk of football and politics. It revolves around four childhood friends holidaying in Spain, sleeping by day, partying by night, and even if it is the drunkenness that allows them to talk openly, at least they are admitting their problems and failings.
The collection as a whole is an effortless read, told in warm and witty Roddy Doyle style. But with so much male repression bound up in one book, most of it completely unresolved, I wondered how much of it is a true reflection of this generation — okay, my generation — of men? When Terence, in The Slave, says middle-age is all about “getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless. It’s death becoming something real”, is that what most men think — and feel? Answers in the comments box, please!