Readers may recognize the men that populate Bullfighting , Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s new collection of short stories, from their own lives. These are the laconic middle-agers, the wry friends-of-friends trapped in loveless marriages, the empty-nesters and the lonely relatives whose drinking habits inspire murmurs around the kitchen table. They are mostly in their mid- to late forties (in one vignette: “Donal was forty-eight. So were his friends. He liked the precision of that: all his friends were forty-eight.”) and if not ravaged by time, they are at least chafed and taunted by it. “I never wanted to be a man who wore slippers,” gripes one protagonist, remembering how his father’s senility began with fuzzy footwear. “Get into a pair of slippers and you’re fucked; your life is over.”
But none of the events in these thirteen set pieces, each of which finds a new way to illumine domestic disappointment, has quite such a stamp of finality. Among the main characters, physical complaints prove painful but not deadly-a father suffers from a kidney stone, a husband sustains a mysterious injury and then leaves the hospital to recuperate. In “Ash,” a wife announces she will divorce her partner only to return a few days later. While the many pets that stand in for authentic companionship are constantly dying, they are just as routinely replaced. The protagonists in Bullfighting may be struggling to come to terms with lives they no longer recognize, but Doyle resists the grand gesture of the psychic breakdown. “I’d been coping okay,” says one man, shaken by the discovery of a dead rat in his kitchen. “The world was a straightforward, decent place …. And so it is.”
That rat is one of many evocative symbols in the collection. On the floor, it looks like “a bit of brown paper, a wrapper…even nothing at all”-calling to mind the poet Philip Larkin’s description of death itself, “a small unfocused blur” on the edge of human vision. Mortality trails the men of Bullfighting as they devise lesson plans for schoolchildren, ferry their parents to the funerals of old friends, or-as in the title sketch-leave Ireland altogether for the spectacular violence of the Valencia bullring. Yet Doyle’s stories also allow for moments of uplift and grace. A rainstorm at the end of the first vignette forces Hanohoe, a crusty suburban retiree, into close quarters with a young girl who reminds him of his own children, now grown. Here Doyle’s short sentences, well-suited to the terseness and gruffness of his subjects, become capsules of unfamiliar emotion:
-The rain’s stopping.
-It was badly needed, she says.
-You’re damn right, he says.
Bullfighting is not the kind of book you can’t wait to curl up with. Even when the tone lightens, off-stage traumas make for bleak reading (here as elsewhere in this author’s work, the Irish recession casts a long shadow). Healthy relationships are few and far between. But for anyone intrigued by the ” manopause ” phenomenon, especially as it plays out in contemporary Dublin, Roddy Doyle has created a poignant and convincing exposé. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine his characters agreeing with their compatriot, William Butler Yeats, who wrote in ” Sailing to Byzantium ” of wanting to flee his homeland for a more ageless city; Eire, he notes, “is no country for old men.”