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Roddy Doyle

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Post  eddie Tue Apr 12, 2011 7:25 pm

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle – review

The middle-aged men in Roddy Doyle's stories are down, but not out

Gerard Woodward The Guardian, Saturday 9 April 2011

Mid-life – when does it start? When does it end? No one knows, but it's a pretty safe bet that 48 is somewhere slap bang in the middle of it. "Donal was forty-eight. So were his friends. He liked the precision of that: all his friends were forty-eight." In fact, just about all the characters in Bullfighting, Roddy Doyle's new collection of short stories, are 48, or close enough. Doyle himself was 48 a few years ago. I was 48 last year. You're probably 48 yourself, reading this, or will be soon (or were, recently). Everyone in the whole world is 48. That's what it can feel like, after reading these tightly themed stories of mid-life angst.

Roddy Doyle Bullfighting-by-Roddy-Doy-001
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

The characters in Bullfighting are in the midst of things in other ways as well. Midway through life, they are also midway up the social ladder, neither working-class nor high-achieving professional; average amounts in the bank, average debts, they are on to their second or third wives (the central characters are all male). Their children are at a difficult age.

The other thing they have in common is a sudden new vantage point from which their past suddenly seems very distant, the future slightly dark and the present incomprehensible. They have mild health problems and occasional scares, harbingers, one can see, of the greater ailments to come. Everything has become flimsy and transient. The dead rat that turns up in bookish builder Terry's kitchen in "The Slave" is a dark counterweight to the certainties of his childhood – "If you find a rat in your kitchen the world stops being a decent, straightforward place for a while." The stories are full of things that quietly gnaw away at the old order, though sometimes they are rather bigger.

Donal in the title story, and his three coevals, friends since childhood, feel at once secure in each other's companionship, and adrift in a world they no longer quite understand. Not only are they the same age, they have stayed put in Dublin (the setting for all the stories). "No one he knew had ever moved south of the Liffey." Donal has a contented life but, as his own children leave childhood, the future begins to cast a shadow. "The stories, his memories, were wearing out and there was nothing new replacing them. His whole fuckin' life was going." These anxieties prompt the lads' holiday to Spain, where, in a flatly affirmative ending, the men achieve a bond and an equilibrium that nothing, it seems, can unbalance, not even a bull with its horns ablaze.

The men in these stories are often caught between the worlds of the very old and the very young. The character in "Funerals" who ferries his elderly parents to the wakes and cremations of their ever-waning circle of friends rubs shoulders with the character in "Ash", who can't quite believe that a little girl is totally unfamiliar with that substance. With smoking banned, no open fires and bonfires a thing of the past, where is there in the world for her to encounter it?

Male friendship, or the male family bonds of father and son, or brother and brother, are the backbone of this collection. The wives, mothers and sisters most often remain on the periphery, and are usually rather stern authority figures to be kept at arm's length.

The strangest of the stories, "Blood", has the main character take a leaf from Bram Stoker's book (a former resident of Dublin) and develop a thirst for blood. He begins by drinking the puddles of the stuff that collect in the polystyrene trays of supermarket meat, then he's licking raw lamb chops straight from the fridge, and before long he's biting the head off next door's chicken. This retreat into savagery chimes with Donal's fascination with bullfighting, and contains a similarly unexpected and touching outcome. The character's insistence on his own normality – "The simple, dirty truth was that he wanted to bite necks. It was one of those mid-life things" – and the trademark deadpan style of Doyle's storytelling make this an entirely believable comedy of one man's response to waning sexual prowess.

Animals play a big part in many of these stories, almost as though the ageing process is brought into sharper focus when it is contrasted with the incuriosity of the non-human world. In "Animals", a man contemplates how the history of his family is the history of its pets, and how this parallel narrative of animal life played itself out in often brutal ways. Their dog ate one of the rabbits. The protagonist accidentally backed his car over the dog. The casual and necessary brutality (eating meat, exterminating pets) by which an average life is sustained is given wonderful expression, here and elsewhere.

Doyle's touch is very light, almost as though his pen can hardly bear to mark the page. Sentences are short, abrupt, often verbless. Paragraphs shrink to a single word. Scenes are conjured from a few dabs, narratives held together with invisible thread. It is a technique he has been honing since his earliest books, and one that is particularly suited to the short story. The tone of the collection is far from bleak. The terrors of dying have yet to fully raise their heads; the characters in these stories may feel their hearts murmur and their joints creak, but they still have a lot of living to do.

Gerard Woodward's Nourishment is published by Picador. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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