Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting, short stories

‘Bullfighting’ by Roddy Doyle


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!

7 thoughts on “‘Bullfighting’ by Roddy Doyle”

  1. I m like you Kim I feel out of love with him after paddy clarke ,just couldn’t get star called henry ,I always thhought he was a writer of present and struggled with historic fiction ,this sounds like him c=going back to more familar ground his own life and experience like his earlier books which I loved ,I saw it in bookshop and didn’t see it was him just thought it was a spanish travel book for some reason ,all the best stu


  2. Hi Stu, I think you’ve summed up what I like about Doyle — “he’s a writer of the present”. I like the simplicity of his prose style and the witty banter between characters. Above all I love the Irish-ness of his books. A Star Called Henry was set in Ireland, but with a harder, more serious edge, and of course set in the past, and while I did enjoy it at the time, I didn’t really want to continue reading the series on the (prejudiced) basis that they were set abroad. Maybe someone who has read Oh Play That Thing, and Dead Republic could convince me otherwise…


  3. I read Play That Thing, but not Dead Republic and would like to say that Henry’s story does not get any more interesting (at least not to me). Oh sure, there’s the whole “I’m living it up in Chicago and, look, I become a hobo!” storyline, but it falls flat. Thanks for reviewing this one, Kim, I’ll definitely put it on my wishlist.
    Have either of you (Stu and Kim) read The Deportees? My husband read it last year and loved it, but it’s been sitting on the shelf since then.


  4. Not read The Deportees… funnily enough I’d forgotten all about that one, but now, having looked it up on Amazon, I’m not sure I’d really want to read it. (I never knew it was a collection of short stories.)


  5. I think the answer to your question is yes, for a substantial number of men. Men in the 45-60 age range at the most at risk for suicide in America by far. They make up the vast majority of suicide attempts in this county, probably many others as well. But it’s a issue that tends to get dismissed by the rest of society.
    I stumbled on “Blood” somewhere and quite enjoyed it. I hope Mr. Doyle has a few other gothic tales in him.


  6. Your comment made me go look up suicide rates for men in Australia, and while stats for 2009 suggest that the 40-44 year group is at risk, male suicides peak drastically after the age of 75. See this page for more info:
    I then checked the situation in Britain, and among men, the highest rate of suicide since 1997 has been in those aged 15-44 years.
    Oh, what cheery stuff! ;-(
    Blood was probably my favourite story in the collection! You can read it in full on the Times website:


  7. Hi there, I read both your reviews and against
    your conjecture that; “Women will favour the
    second reviewed novel about the magical circus
    scene…”; I would choose to read this one
    Simply because it strikes me as far more
    uplifting imagining mens participation in
    the childcare routine, since personally I know
    of painfully few in real life.
    Also, how do men deal with boredom strikes
    me as a captivating problem to examine within
    the short story genre. Contrary to one of the
    comments posted above find the fictional
    short story an exciting medium to read and
    work in. Perhaps I’m biased.


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